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Technology in the Home: Perspective, Principles, and Practices

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on The Forge, an organization that promotes fatherhood and the family. The forge will soon be offering an online course on Fatherhood and the Family.

Our story…

In 1997, my wife Angela and I welcomed the first of our eleven children. The rest of our children came like a flight of stairs, one after another, in most cases less than 2 years apart (no twins). Our youngest is currently 7 and our oldest is 26; he is married with a baby of his own. 

My professional work is in education. I’ve worked at The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland, since 1995 and am currently the Head of the Upper School. As an educator at a school with a strong mission to support families, I’ve learned a lot from the example of many outstanding families striving to raise children in our culture. It didn’t take long for me to notice that families with an intentional approach to managing technology in the home had children who tended to thrive academically and in other ways as well.

My wife and my initial attitude to technology was to keep technology out of our home as much as possible. We had a rarely-used television and did not even set up an internet connection for our family computer until sometime in the early 2000s. Our older children would occupy themselves, spending lots of time outside, doing such things as building forts and digging holes in the backyard. Many books were read. It was messy and at times chaotic but almost always joyful.

Angela and I are not Luddites. We were not against technology per se. We were just concerned with how screens could captivate a young person, often taking away their desire to act in a self-directed way. We did not want screens to interfere with our children engaging in healthy play, reading independently, and our much-looked-forward-to-out-loud family reading time in the evenings. Our attitude toward technology was similar to that expressed by the Oompa Loompas song sung after the demise of Mike Teavee in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Over the years, technology gradually began to seep into our home. First, were books on tape or CDs. Our older children listened to works like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for hours on end. This seemed mostly okay to Angela and me. Hearing a story being read through a CD recording is not that different from listening to a parent read it. This resulted in younger children to listen to classic works of literature that otherwise would be difficult for them to read on their own. But we were concerned with the tendency of some of our children listening to recorded books for hours at a time, without any desire to stop. They would hide away in what was called “the alcove,” a small carpeted nook in our house with blankets and bookshelves. We found ourselves placing time limits on listening and discouraging the retreat to private places away from the life of the family.

When we connected our family computer to the internet, not much changed at first. Email was becoming more popular and Angela and I would periodically log on to communicate with others. The children would look over our shoulders, somewhat intrigued by what Mom and Dad were doing on the computer. As our family grew and the older children began to enter school, the use of the computer gradually expanded. Most times, it was educational. Video games were – and still are – strictly forbidden in the Moynihan household. The children would learn how to type from online tutorials and practice with speed typing games, which we reluctantly allowed. Educational videos were watched for school. And the computer became increasingly important for other school work, especially for the older children. As this happened, we realized that one computer was not enough and purchased our first laptop. Angela and I were concerned with the direction this was going. Should we allow the older children to take a laptop to their bedroom where they can view content in apparent anonymity? Even apart from potential problematic content, there was the question of the amount of time spent in front of a screen. It was becoming increasingly well-documented that too much screen time correlates to significant negative outcomes for children.

Then the era of cell phones erupted into our family life. Angela and I found ourselves using these powerful tools more and more. It was great to have so much information at one’s fingertips, and with our children involved in multiple sports teams and social gatherings, we soon wondered how it was possible to keep up even with the aid of these personal computing devices. We were concerned about how captivating these devices could be, and how they would take the place of healthy personal interactions, including in the family. They can be difficult to manage for a well-formed adult. There was no way we were going to turn over a cell phone with full functionality to our school-age children.

It became an ironclad Moynihan household policy that no child was to have their own phone until they were a senior in high school, and then only if we parents thought it was a good idea. This has been a challenging battle to fight, as children often feel left out from some communication among friends. We do have a Pinwheel family phone that is used as needed by those children who don’t have their own phones.

And so, our current state is one of striving for – and sometimes striking but perhaps just as often not – the right balance. Our younger children are somewhat disadvantaged because the screens are more a part of the ebb and flow of family life than they were for older siblings. They are at times drawn to the computer, requesting permission to watch a video, perhaps as a way to help occupy the youngest Moynihan, little Luke who is an adorable but at times rambunctious 7-year-old with Down Syndrome. They do not engage in creative play as much as their older siblings did. Our young teenage girls are drawn to the chat functions on the Gmail platform, which is the “only way” they can communicate with their friends since they do not have cell phones. Angela and I realize that computers are useful and even present the possibility of significant cultural riches. We have fond memories of being together as a family watching the BBC version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for several evenings. But, as with any powerful tool, computers can be dangerous and have downsides if not used well; it is difficult for a modern family to use them well.


In retrospect, though there are some things I wish we had done a bit differently, for the most part, we are satisfied with the way we navigated the changing technology landscape. Since each family situation is different, there is not a clear-cut recipe for success that applies in the same way to all families. The best we can do as parents is to study and reflect on our family situations with the help of sound principles and practical wisdom that can be applied to different families in different ways. I’d like to suggest three such principles intended to be helpful for parents as they reflectively determine their specific approach to governing technology in the home:

  1. Evaluate Technology According to Virtue

To be virtuous is to develop habits that make us more fully alive as human beings. Technology is good and, sometimes, it does help us come more fully to life. Unfortunately, other times it makes us dull, lazy, and less human. It is not possible to adequately evaluate technology use apart from a broader consideration of human flourishing, including how we should use our time and how we can promote growth in virtue in our children. Thus, there is no one-size-fits-all rule for all technology. As parents, we must do the hard work of asking ourselves whether a certain kind of technology for a certain child is having a positive or negative effect. 

The limited time we have on this earth is a great treasure that should be intentionally used well. Instead of aimlessly going through life, seemingly without purpose, it is better to approach the hours of one’s day in a thoughtful, planned way. We should act as rational agents freely choosing what we believe to be good uses of our time. Each day should have a balance of work, study, play, prayer, conversation, and time to relax, both with others and in silent contemplation. 

But we are complicated creatures who have difficulty actively pursuing the good. There is a human tendency to approach time passively, with an unguarded openness to what comes one’s way rather than intentionally structuring time in a meaningful way. We are meant to soar like an eagle, contemplating the checkered landscape of life’s possibilities, but too often we are like a dog zigzagging across a field, nose and eyes down, captivated by the changing scents. This human tendency to simply follow one’s fancy can be made worse by technology, especially devices and platforms designed to captivate one’s attention. These devices tend to diminish agency, instead fostering an attitude toward life that is analogous to being a consumer of experiences packaged by others, with an unthinking approach toward consuming information and entertainment. It is all too easy to develop an inordinate attraction to or even an addiction to such things as video games and social media platforms designed with the help of attention engineers seeking ways to increase user engagement. 

The common result of an unindulged desire for entertainment in children is boredom. Boredom is a kind of hunger. You can allow your children to assuage their hunger with candy, or you can teach them to eat real food. Children who have tasted the pleasure of consuming experiences packaged by others will often express their desire for more such experiences by complaining about being bored. This is a good sign. Boredom is a mild form of suffering that can, if not placated by entertainment, open up the interior spaces necessary for acting with agency, pursuing an adventure of sorts. If boredom is continually relieved by inordinately consuming entertainment, the result will be a dull listlessness, a loss of the capacity for wonder much worse than mere boredom. 

If it is not placated, boredom can provide the push children need to engage in imaginative play, such as building elaborate forts or planning an adventure. With this in mind, a wise parent will respond to complaints of boredom not by trying to remove the boredom. They will instead smile and say something like, “You are bored. That’s great. I can’t wait to see what you will decide to do next.” Or, if the youngster is annoying, a parent can have them reach into the “chore jar” to pick out a chore to complete. It is not the job of the parent to entertain the child; a wise parent knows that boredom in children can be a great ally. A wise parent actively seeks to eliminate the idols that on the surface seem to provide relief from boredom and prevent the child from exercising their freedom to act intentionally.

I would argue that, in our time, technology in the home is the biggest idol to be smashed. It makes sense for parents to restrict access to any technology that overly captivates the child. Technology that is designed to reduce the child to a consumer of experiences rather than an active agent should be restricted. A good rule of thumb is to assess whether the technology is being used with the person in control, or whether the technology has reduced the person to a passive consumer. We allowed our oldest to pursue his interest in computer programming, using the computer as a tool (he now works as a software engineer for Google). On the other hand, we not only have a policy against all video games, but we found ourselves at one point taking away a plastic ball toy called a Perplexus from a child who was too attached to it. Though it can be challenging to decide in some particular cases, the principle is clear: parents can allow technology (understood broadly as any device, not just computers) that is used by the person, but should forbid anything that uses the person.

This principle is reinforced by a sensible overall family schedule, one that facilitates all the good things that should be present in a typical day. When we were at our best, such a schedule was posted on the refrigerator and, in addition to lots of free time, included an afternoon quiet time where children were expected to quietly read or draw. Parents can also coach children in working off a family schedule to structure their own free time in a meaningful way.

Model good uses of technology in the family

Technology does open up the possibility of the family accessing, in the home, cultural riches unimaginable to previous generations. It used to be the case that if you wanted to see a professional production of a play like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you would need to travel to a theater at a set time to see the live performance. Granted that seeing Shakespeare performed on stage is best; it is still remarkable that someone today can watch numerous different professional versions of Macbeth in the comfort of home, and at any time. Similarly, while going to a stage performance of Handel’s Messiah is best, this and other great performances are readily available to listen to at home. Parental governance of the family schedule can help leverage these good uses of technology. There could be planned times for the family to watch a quality film. An edifying piece of music could be played during family chore time.

It is good for children to see parents using technology well. Our children will watch Angela use the computer to design our annual family scrapbook, which is typically printed and given to relatives for Christmas. On the other hand, it can be problematic if children see parents retreating behind a device, distracted and not attentive to those in the same room. Unfortunately, this happens all too often today. While no parent is perfect, we can all strive to be better about how we model the use of technology by our actions.

Filters can help; relationships are essential

Parents are all too aware that devices with internet connectivity are not merely a problem because they can interfere with growth in agency and virtue. There are other dangers, including immoral content like pornography and seductive ideologies. Parents should use internet filters, while at the same time keeping in mind that, at best, a filter helps to keep an honest child honest. A good internet filter will help limit the harmful content that enters the home. Filters are not perfect and should not be seen as replacing the need for parents to be close to their children. The best protection a parent can offer to their teenager is to foster a close personal relationship, a relationship that includes frank discussions of important matters. The solution to the technology problem is not to try to “out tech” the technology. Rather, it is to humanize the use of technology, integrating it into the home in a way that adds value.

Possible practical steps…

Family situations are different and there is not a one-size-fits-all set of practices for managing technology in the home. The best outcome will come from parents reflecting on sound principles and then carefully studying their situation to determine the best practical steps to take. The following is a list of possible practical means to govern technology in the home. This is not intended to be a “to-do” list for parents to follow. This list’s purpose is food for thought, with the hope that one or more of these ideas might help parents as they strategically think about their situations:

  1. Have computers only in public places. Place desktop computers in heavily trafficked areas like the family room or kitchen. Do not allow children to take laptop computers to their bedrooms.
  2. Have scheduled times during the day when computers can be used and times when they are not to be used. Shut down the internet connection at a set time each evening. Do not allow any screen use after a certain time at night.
  3. Have a cell phone storage place, perhaps a charging station, where cell phones for parents and older children are placed while at home. The intention is to discourage adults and older teens from carrying their phones around the house. Perhaps have all cell phones stored in the parents’ bedroom for the night. Do not allow cell phones at the dinner table.
  4. Research the moral content of movies before watching them as a family. Watch some movies only with filters, such as VidAngel. Install a filter for home internet connections.
  5. For movies based on books, allow older children to watch the movies only after they have first read the corresponding books (ex: Lord of the Rings).
  6. Do not allow children to watch videos alone. Instead, plan intentional video-watching for the entire family or most of the family.
  7. Give virtue-based reasons for your parenting decisions, rather than just asserting your will without appealing to sound reasons why you are making certain calls. Reinforce to children that everything posted online is potentially public information. Tell your children never to write or post anything that they would not want to see printed in the newspaper.
  8. Seek support from other like-minded parents, especially, if appropriate, parents of your children’s friends.
  9. Require older children to memorize a poem as a punishment for breaking family technology rules, not allowing them any access to tech until the poem is memorized and recited.
  10. If you decide to allow any social media, require that you are connected to all social media accounts.
  11. Foster a home culture where there are wholesome things for children to do, such as helping cook meals, playing board or card games together, engaging in meaningful work and chores, and even reading books to younger siblings.
  12. If managing the use of particular technologies in one’s home is not practical for whatever reason (family situations vary), it is probably better to simply get rid of the technology. It is possible that the best practical option for a particular family is to become a “tech-free or mostly tech-free family,” as opposed to having whatever benefits technology can provide be outweighed by its serious downsides. If you don’t think that your family is up for the difficult task of managing technology well, it is not unreasonable for you to make an intentional decision to do without it.

For additional perspective, including creative ways to apply these principles in the family, see the three books I’ve written on parenting, all from Scepter Press:

Discussion questions

  • St. John Paul II refers to the family as a “communion of persons.” What are some times when my family has used technology in a way that was enriching, a way that contributed to family unity? When has technology helped our family together pursue cultural riches in a life-giving way? What are positive examples of technology use in my home?
  • What are some examples of times when technology has negatively impacted my family life (hindered our shared life together, getting in the way of living an authentic “communion of persons”)?
  • Am I close enough to my children to have a good sense of the influences that are contributing to the formation of their moral imaginations? Are my children being fed on a healthy diet of positive images and stories or are they consuming the typical messages of our culture without a healthy critical filter?
  • Do my children tend to actively engage in goal-oriented tasks or play? Or do they seek to be entertained, overly desiring some pre-packaged experience as a pleasurable way to pass the time?
  • Do I realize that boredom can be a great ally to be embraced by parents who take seriously their task of raising children comfortable with exercising their freedom rather than just existing in an unguarded openness to whatever pleasurable experiences come along?
  • Do I realize that it is not the job of a parent to entertain their children? 
  • Do I make the time to talk to my wife about our family? Together, do we study our family culture with a particular concern for each of our children? Do I listen carefully to my wife’s perspective, valuing her insights? Do we as parents form practical resolutions to improve family culture and ways to help particular children grow in virtue?

Editor’s Note: If you like this article, you’ll be interested in the work the Forge is doing to strengthen fathers and families. Check out their course on Fathers and Sons.

About the Author

Michael Moynihan

Head of Upper School, The Heights School

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame Honors Program in 1992. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America,

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