Theologian and author Andy Crouch spoke about the dangers of technology on a recent episode of Matters of Life & Death. Journalist Tim Wyatt explores Crouch’s arguments

Are we raising a generation of damaged, insecure and mentally ill young people thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, digital technology and the internet? The writer and theologian Andy Crouch believes we may be, and argues Christians should pioneer a different and more arms-length approach. 

You can hear the full interview with Andy Crouch on Matters of Life & Death here.


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Harming young minds

Nagging doubts many of us have had about teenagers and smartphones have bubbled to the surface in recent months, in part prompted by the success of the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation

Haidt argues that over the last decade there has been a striking correlation between rising rates of mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety among teenagers and the increase usage of smartphones and social media. While his thesis has been resisted by some researchers, others point to a growing body of evidence suggesting it is not good for human beings to spend so much of their time living through screens at such a young age. 

Andy Crouch, a writer and theologian, has spent years digging into the data on digital tech in the home and its impact on families, culminating in two books: 2017’s The Techwise Family and 2022’s The Life We’re Looking For. He argues that while correlation doesn’t always equal causation, over time the evidence is stacking up that Haidt’s core thesis is probably correct. 

It is not just about what phones might be doing to young, still growing minds, but also what they are substituting for, Crouch suggests. Physical play, out in the real world, is being replaced in many homes by hours and hours of children watching TV, playing video games and scrolling on their phones. 

This is despite mountains of research finding physical activity – and especially that which is done with other people, like dancing or sport – is tremendously powerful at protecting against depression. Successive generations of parents have restricted how far their children are allowed to play from the house or what risks they are allowed to take, a trend which was turbocharged by the explosion of opportunities for indoor, sedentary play thanks to digital tech. 

Finding ways to resist tech culture

There is a better way for Christian parents to consider how to organise their children’s lives, Crouch argues. Jesus sums up the law as to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and parents should evaluate technology whether it develops their child’s ability to use all their heart, soul, mind and strength: “Does it develop all-ness of heart? Does it develop depth of soul? Does it develop my mind? Does it develop my physical body?” 

In Crouch’s household, if a device does not order people towards these qualities, then it is not brought into the home. 

It can sometimes seem overwhelming given the ubiquity of screens and devices to know where to draw lines. Crouch points to the three most formative places for young people: the home, school and church. These are where young unformed people become the adults God meant for them to be, and it is in these places where technology must not be allowed to dominate.

“Every moment you’re being entertained by the television or the TikTok video or whatever, is a moment you’re not spending actually telling a story together or making music together or having a conversation together. And when you’re on the bus, I’m not that worried about it. But when you’re in your home with these other people who are your primary formative community, especially parents and children, I’m very worried.”

These intermediate spaces, between the isolation of the individual and the mass environment of the state, are not just the most formative parts of society, but also those most under threat by our digital era. Big tech firms have a direct pipeline into the hearts and minds of young people thanks to smartphones and social media, bypassing the home, church or school communities. 

Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos are not accountable to those whose lives are being harmed by their products, because despite being richer and more powerful than many nation states, they exist solely to maximise profit for their shareholders. 


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A new gender divide

Crouch intriguingly suggests our digitalised world might affect boys differently from girls. Assessing the evidence assembled by Haidt, he notes the spike in depression and anxiety is much higher among girls. 

He speculates this is because girls want the internet for social media, to connect with friends and form social hierarchies. Boys are online for video games, to move mastery of the physical world into a more tractable space and demonstrate skills which impress their peers.

Crouch hypothesises that this online social world is terrible for teenage girls, but teaches them skills that help them thrive as adults. Mastering a video game is not so harmful for teenage boys, hence they suffer less in adolescence, but renders them very poorly prepared for the real world they enter into in adulthood. 

Putting theory into practice

Applying some of these concerns to real world issues, does this mean simply not letting our young people access screens? Is that credible or realistic, in a world where the average person gets their first smartphone around the age of 9?

Crouch says, yes! None of his children were allowed to engage with screens before the age of 10, and smartphones and social media were banned until 16. While he and his wife use computers for work, they also live by these strict rules for their own phones, which are not allowed out at home. 

The family also sabbaths from technology one day a week, one week a month and one month a year, something Crouch describes as “a circuit-breaker on idolatry” and a useful way of exposing our dependence on these app and devices. Others are pursuing a similar path, despite how radical and eccentric it may seem to wider society. 

Part of the difficulty is the collective action problem. Studies have suggested that teenagers are very aware of how destructive social media can be and would actually pay money to delete the apps from everyone’s phones. But if you alone opt out of TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram while all your friends continue living most of their lives online, it just seems self-defeating and alienating. 

There is also the fact that most digital products are explicitly designed to be addictive and all-consuming, utilising social psychology to make the user dependent on it. “The collective action problem is the real one,” Crouch conceded. “Parents say ‘I wish we could get rid of it, but our kids are given tablets in school.’ I feel very keenly for parents who have to push back against this because it’s tough to push back. But I think it’s our responsibility, not just as parents of our own children, but for the good of our neighbour, to push back.”

Frankly, Christians should probably get used to being the odd ones out, and not just around technology. “We are part of a different family, we have a different vision of what it means to be human. And therefore, we do different things.” 

Check out the full interview with Andy Crouch on Matters of Life & Death here.


Tim Wyatt is a freelance journalist and co-host of Matters of Life & Death.