It's a digital age, not the digital
age. We've largely moved away from an industrial
age, moving from a focus on manufacturing goods to a focus on
information and knowledge. But within that, there'll be different
stages: the first computers, laptops, search engines, social
networks, each bringing with them new opportunities and risks.
Lots of parents have grown up in a digital
age, and traits ascribed to so-called "digital
natives" - collaboration, innovation, transparency, and openness -
can be found across the generations. It's more about an attitude to
embrace these opportunities. Officially, I'm not a native, because
you have to be born after 1980, but someone at Oxford divides
people into "digital residents" and "digital visitors". Some people
live online, and some just go online because they have to.
I wrote Raising Children in a Digital Age
because parents are panicking about the risks they read about in
the media. And a lot of people in churches who work
with children don't know what to do when kids turn up at youth club
and all they want to do is be on their phones. They also have to
deal with safety- and risk-assessments, and so on. So I tried to
make all the technical research understandable.
I read an Amazon review of my book: a
14-year-old, having looked in disgust at what her mum was reading,
picked it up and said: "I think she knows what she's talking
about." That was quite cool.
The digital revolution has affected all our
lives, whether we're proactively engaged or not.
Everytime you shop in the supermarket, take public transport, or
searchon Google, data is collected about you.
The internet has become a backdrop to
childhood, but there are other economic, social, and
cultural factors that have more impact. Discussing things on TV was
a core activity for many families, and many nostalgically think
back to that as a simpler time. Now parents and children can look
up information together, or sit with a mobile device in the kitchen
while dinner's being cooked.
I'd suggest churches copy the idea of social-media
surgeries: invite people to come and have the kids
show the adults what they're doing online, or set up a youth-club
blog, or have a 20-minute slot with someone who can show them
Facebook or Twitter, or whatever they're interested in. Focus on
the positive. Use the building to help people to engage with
things. Let's not be scared.
Learn how things work, even if you have
to ask your child for help. Normalise the digital and keep the
communication lines open. Adults need to listen and talk to
children about their online activities and behaviour, and discuss
any issues that arise. This is the most powerful and effective
weapon you have in your parenting toolbox. The digital world is
part of life, it's here to stay, and there are plenty of
opportunities available online; so let's help children make the
most of it safely, in among all the other activities that fill
I'm passionate about people being "whole-life
selves", having integrity between their online and
offline lives - mentioning that they go to church in their online
life, for example. I've done that with my Facebook page, and ended
up with three people asking if they could come to my church because
they think it sounds normal and not full of three-headed monsters.
But people shouldn't be just pumping out Bible verses. God gave us
life to live to the full, and we should be writing about all that
Dan Gardner wrote that we're "the
healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we
are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our
There are risks with digital culture, as
there have always been. We can find good and bad ways to use the
technology. We need to have respect for it.
There are fears that children are spending all their
time on devices in their bedrooms. But if the
outside world is seen as increasingly risky, and children don't
have much independent access to it any more, it's an obvious way
for them to connect with their friends.
There's definitely a role for government in digital
literacy, and we need further funding for research.
Our society focuses a lot on individual responsibility, but the
whole society has responsibility for children.
There are plenty of horrible things to find on the
internet if care isn't taken, but something that
repeatedly distresses me is graceless conversations between
Christians. Some of those conversations would be better taken
offline - or not had at all. We're all human, but for the rest of
the world it's not a good witness.
Before I press the "Send" button, I'll
always ask, "Would I be happy for God, my parents, any children,
worst enemy, front page of a newspaper to see this?" before
Every time we play the piano, learn a
language, or take up a new sport, we're changing the shape of our
brains. The internet is undoubtedly having an effect on people's
thought-patterns, but that doesn't make it good or bad.
Teenagers experiment with their identity,
and the internet gives even more opportunities for this. We can all
choose how to project ourselves online, but then so we can offline.
I'd hope people can do this with integrity.
Relationships online may have a different
nature, but they are as valid and real as offline
relationships. Most people relate to each other in a variety of
ways: face to face, by phone, via email, via Facebook, via text,
and even on paper. Our relationships are not usually split into
online and virtual relationships, and offline and "real"
relationships. Those that are solely online are no less real than
those conducted face to face.
There are some days when I don't go online at
all. Admittedly, that's rare. But on other days it
depends: it's part of my job; so I'll be online for a lot longer
than many other people, most of the day, and some of the evening. I
broke my phone a couple of years ago, and found that I became less
healthy, because I was hunched over my laptop for hours, whereas
mobile devices can be popped in and out of the pocket - job done in
a few seconds.
Futurology is a dangerous art, but I
think privacy and security are increasing concerns, with more
private person-to-person conversation on platforms such as WhatsApp
rather than public-status updates. On the other hand, smaller,
faster, and more wearable devices have longer battery lives. It'll
be great not to be worrying about how far I am from a plug socket
throughout the day.
I grew up in a Brethren family, one of
five children, the second youngest, with four brothers. My dad's a
farmer, and they never retire. We didn't have a TV until I was 17,
andI could typicallybe found running around the Sussex countryside,
climbing trees, ignoring everyone while I inhaled stories in books,
and fought to stop my brothers stealing all my Lego. I now have
seven nephews and nieces scattered in every corner of the
My biggest claim to fame is that I wrote
the history of "Keep Calm and Carry On" in my Ph.D., before it was
I've done a lot of adventure travel,
looking for opportunities to meet new people and understand new
cultures. After I was made redundant from Manchester University, I
travelled for eight months through South-East Asia, Australasia,
and South America, and then led group tours for Oak Hall around
Europe for a summer. I did manage a more relaxing holiday in
Marrakesh earlier this year.
Swimming is one of my favourite forms of
exercise, and I love the sound of lapping and
The most influential people in my life are
parents, teachers, counsellors, colleagues and
friends - and Angie Smith from Christ Church, Winchester. She's
often said the right thing at the right time to enable me to move
I've been very influenced by Susan
Jeffers's Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway; Cloud and
Townsend's Boundaries; Draper's Less is More;
Boss's Beyond Chocolate; Williams's Screw Work, Let's
Play; and Sher's What do I do when I want to do
everything? And can I admit that I love a good Georgette Heyer
novel? Fluffy, but historically grounded.
I pray mostly for friends, family, and
sleep. I like to look out for creative ways of praying so I don't
fall asleep on my knees, Adrian Plass-style. I love a prayer walk,
looking out for God in everything around us.
I'd choose to be locked in a church with my cousin
Hannah, on whose sofa I often sleep when I'm in
London. She's incredibly resourceful and encouraging, and I could
put the world to rights with her for hours. We got back in touch
Dr Bex Lewis was talking to Terence Handley
Raising Children in a Digital Age is
published by Lion Hudson at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10 - Use
code CT654 ).