The Virtual Family: Connected or Disconnected?

The Virtual Family: Connected or Disconnected?

I took my family out to dinner one evening after my younger son’s lacrosse practice. As we were catching up on each other’s day and making plans for the coming weekend, I noticed a family had been seated at the table next to us. What struck me as odd was that the dad was on his iPhone answering an email, the mom was texting, and their teenage daughter was also texting—all at the same time! This went on for the duration of the meal and I don’t think they had more than five minutes of conversation the entire time they were seated. It was almost surreal for me to see three people sharing a meal while absorbed in the worlds of their individual electronic devices. It occurred to me that I was observing a virtual family in action.

The memory of that evening has stuck with me and I have since observed, with far greater interest, kids and parents focused on the little screens in front of them as they walk, eat, and ride in cars. I brought this topic up at a recent lunch with friends who shared that they were having significant challenges with how much their teens were texting and how they would rather communicate via this medium versus having a real conversation.

Is this progress or are we taking a giant leap backward in the development of our children? Have we thrown in the towel and allowed the wired world in which we live to raise our children for us? Are we contributing to the problem through the examples we are setting for our children?

I want to be clear that I am not anti-technology. It could be that I am feeling a little overwhelmed by the very tools and devices which were meant to make our lives easier and more efficient. I struggle with my own iPhone addiction and responding to the avalanche of emails I receive each day. We have a Wii, computers, and iPhones in our home, and we all watch TV. But we also have clear limits. We restrict our kids’ computer and TV time, their music choices, and the content they can view. It is a constant struggle for me and my wife to keep an eye on the potential negative influence of technology and media, but the alternative to being vigilant is the painful road to becoming a virtual family. We can’t allow that to happen.

How do we fight back? What can parents do? First of all, let’s acknowledge the obvious: our children are growing up with multiple and advanced forms of technology that didn’t exist when we were kids. Studies show a clear connection between the explosion of ADD / ADHD cases and the addictive nature of complex video and computer games. A national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that minority youth (eight to eighteen year olds) devoted an average of 7½ hours a day to entertainment media! Generation Y (those born between ten and thirty years ago) is also having problems with interpersonal communication. They struggle to relate to other human beings outside of texting and computers. For a sobering and informative look at the challenges facing this generation, read Dr. Tim Elmore’s wonderful book, Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future. Also, take a look at his websites: and

Now, I would like to take you down a different path. It would be easy for us to think, based on what you have read so far, that our children and the culture are largely responsible for the creation of the “virtual family.” I am afraid not. My fellow parents, you and I are mostly to blame. The responsibility to set the right example, create appropriate limits, and offer healthier alternatives for our families rests squarely on our shoulders. We have to take ownership of the fact that we are enabling the problem, or it won’t get better. We can’t live in denial any longer and immediate action is needed.

Unless we plan to move to a remote cabin in the woods, we are going to face the inevitability of our families being constantly exposed to all forms of media and technology at school, work, and home. That is reality. But we have the ability and obligation to enforce a degree of moderation and offer our families more suitable choices. I am simply suggesting that we replace what is harmful with what is beneficial.

Here are six positive actions my wife and I are trying very hard to follow in raising our children.

  • Put away the idols. Every minute devoted to TV, texting, computers, video games, and our smartphones is time not spent in prayer and serving our Creator. We often forget that we are in the world, but not of the world. We are made for heaven and not this place called Earth. Do our daily actions reflect this?
  • Respond to our vocations. As Catholics, we should know that our vocation as parents is to help our families (and everyone else) get to heaven. This won’t happen unless we put Christ first in our lives and certainly in our homes. If our children see us praying, joyfully attending Mass, going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and volunteering our time to help others, they are more likely to follow our example. This is the most important influence we can have over our children. Besides, I don’t think our families will attain heaven via email or a text message.
  • Read a book. Make time for reading and encourage our children to open a book, not a web page. Introduce gadget-free, family reading time. If they only see us on our laptops or watching TV, they will likely model that behavior.
  • Talk to each other. Generation Y struggles with interpersonal communication, perhaps because of addiction to texting or more likely because we don’t reinforce this at home. We have to show genuine interest in our kid’s lives and not accept “fine” as the answer to every question. By the way, moms and dads need to talk to each other as well (the kids model what they see!).
  • Family dinner is sacred. This one is tough, but make a commitment to have dinner together—every night if possible. Even if it is a quick stop at Chick-fil-A on the way to football practice, meals (with devices turned off!) are the perfect time to catch up and stay involved in our children’s lives. Don’t forget to share your day as well. My kids are very curious about my work day and my sharing becomes a great teaching opportunity about life in the real world.
  • Don’t be a couch potato. It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon, your favorite movie is on, and you are looking forward to a little down time—and you hear the kids playing video games in the basement. Parents deserve a break (we really do!), but we need to get the kids outside for a bike ride, a hike, throwing the football, or a simple walk as often as possible. Anything that engages them physically and provides meaningful interaction with another human being is a better alternative than Minecraft or Super Mario Brothers.

I know what I am advocating is difficult, but most worthwhile endeavors are going to be challenging. Either we change our habits and positively influence the behavior of our children or we sink into the mindless comfort of our wired worlds and leave our children poorly prepared for the future. A big part of this equation is recognizing that our children need us to be their parents and not their friends. We love our sons very much, but we love them enough to set limits and have rules. Respect must go hand in hand with love as we raise our children or they will not be able to function in the real world.

One man who I suspect has a much better handle on technology challenges than me is Matt Swaim. Matt is the producer of the Son Rise Morning Show, which is syndicated through the EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network. He is the author of The Eucharist and the Rosary and Prayer in the Digital Age. His latest book, Your College Faith: Own It! was co-written with his wife, Colleen. He and his family reside in Cincinnati.


Matt, from your perspective, what impact has technology had on Catholic families with regards to prayer and the way they practice their faith?

“As with anything, there are always going to be positive and negative aspects to the use of technology in families, dependent upon the user’s personal tendencies and formation. On the one hand, I’ve seen families who no longer make eye contact with one another because they’re constantly glued to a screen, and on the other hand, I’ve seen families huddle around an iPad to read the words of Night Prayer together after dinner. St. Paul, writing two millennia ago, set the standard for use of anything consumable in 1 Corinthians 6:12, writing that All things are lawful for me, but not everything is beneficial. All things are lawful for me, but I will not let myself be dominated by anything.”

What can Catholic fathers do to prevent TV, video games, and the Internet from robbing their families of peace and negatively impacting their faith?

“You can’t combat a negative with a negative. I honestly think that so many families rely on technology and screen time to occupy themselves because they simply don’t have the energy to look for something better to do. Why go to a park, or the zoo, or play a board game, or read to your children, when it’s so much easier to just throw on Netflix and zone out? With so many technological distractions at our immediate disposal, it takes effort to create the kind of home environment that encourages activity and personal interaction. It may sound cheesy, but I’m not above making a list of activities, most of them inexpensive or free, that I can do with my family at a moment’s notice: things like going to a park, throwing around a football, grocery shopping, or even cooking together. Even if conversations about faith don’t come up in those interactive scenarios, it’s still an opportunity for me to build relationships and an avenue of communication where my family feels comfortable enough around me to talk about faith when the time comes.”

Do you feel we are allowing these technology enablers to serve as “surrogate parents” for our children? A modern version of the babysitter?

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at the grocery store and seen children occupied with tablets or smartphones while their parents pick through the produce aisle, or how many times I’ve seen slack-jawed kids stare at mind-numbing children’s programming while parents are occupied with household tasks. There are times and places when it can be helpful to sit a child down in front of a movie while you get something important done, but it’s all too easy in today’s culture to turn the parental reins over to a children’s program that may or may not be instilling in your children the values you want them to hold.

“I think the biggest problem with appointing the television, smartphone, or tablet as a babysitter is you don’t know what kinds of messages your children are getting from their digital babysitter. What may seem elementary to you, an adult with a reasonably formed conscience, may be entirely new moral territory to your child who hears perspective on an important issue for the first time from an animated character while you’re not around.”

As a Catholic man who is happily married with a young son, what would you say are the benefits of utilizing technology to help us grow in our faith?

“There are so many great ways to use technology to share the faith in our homes. Whether that’s dialing up the liturgy of the hours on a smartphone, printing out coloring sheets or activity pages from places like or, or even something as simple as videoconferencing with grandparents after dinner. There are seemingly endless opportunities for using these tools for good. In particular, I love being able to show pictures of great Catholic art to my family by doing a rudimentary internet search. I may never make it to Rome or Florence, but I can bring a small taste of them into my home through the Internet.”

From your vantage point, knowing our Catholic young people are already firmly attached to everything from the iPhone to the Xbox, are there ways we can use these tools to reach them with positive messages to help them stay in the Church? Particularly our young men?

“There are two important points to make here. First, it is impossible to ignore the rising tide of technology. It’s here to stay. Everyone’s plugged in and there’s almost nothing we can do about it. If we want to preach the gospel and be lights for Christ in the culture, we have to take his light into the places where people are desperate for it. We have to be culturally savvy, technologically astute, ground-breakingly compassionate, and unashamed of the Savior who has redeemed us.

“Second, we have to make sure that in our rush to engage the culture, we don’t get sucked into its guiding principles or overly enamored with its methods of transmission. We can have the best gadgets, the coolest websites, and the best market research, and still be what St. Paul calls a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And I think one of the main reasons we’ve lost so much ground with the current generation of technology users is because we’ve been afraid to boldly defend our faith using reason and intellect. In an effort to make the faith bite-sized we’ve effectively insulted the intelligence of a whole generation, which has come to the general conclusion that people of faith aren’t really all that smart and that atheists are the ones who trust them enough to tell them the truth about things. We need to live the faith joyfully, intelligently, and in a spirit of engagement if we want people to look up from their smartphones and ask questions about faith that they may not have even realized were weighing on their hearts.”


Let me ask you to imagine a time over twenty years from now. The kids are married, engaged in meaningful careers, and having children of their own. They are active in the practice of their Catholic faith, spend quality time with their families, and give their time unselfishly to help others in the community. This is a happy picture and one I hope we all would like to see become a reality. Now for the big questions: Are we doing everything humanly possible to help our children achieve this kind of future? Are we a “virtual family” or a well-balanced family with its priorities in order?

I don’t know about you, but my family still has some work to do.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Randy Hain’s popular fifth book, Journey to Heaven: A Road Map for Catholic Men (Emmaus Road Publishing), with permission of the author and Emmaus Road Publishing.

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