When You Give a Kid a Smart Phone

By Lindsey Racz

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When you give a kid a smartphone, he’s going to want Instagram. When you give him an Instagram account, he’s going to want all the other social medias. Once he has the other medias, he won’t be able to put his phone down. When he can’t put his phone down, you will wonder where your kid went. When you try to get your kid back, he will demand you give him back his smartphone… and this is what happens when you give a kid a smartphone.

The above scenario plays out in countless homes across America every single day. At least some version of it. Personally, I’m ticked. I’m ticked at what smartphones are doing to our kids. Or rather, what peer pressure is doing to parents of tweens and teens regarding the usage of smartphones. I write to you today from a clinical and professional stance based on what I see in my counseling office, as well as what I know about the current research on this topic. I also write to you as a parent of a 9-year-old and step-parent of a 14-year-old. A parent who very much feels all the pressure to keep up with social norms and wonders if it’s possible not to be swept away in the cultural undertow. There’s no judgement here. I get it. But today we need to talk truth.      

I’m not here to shame you if your child has a smartphone or if you’re planning to give them one for their next birthday. What I am asking is that you reconsider.  I am asking that we all be reminded of one simple fact:  we don’t have to give in. Give in to what? The temptation to feel guilty. To feel like you’re the only one not getting your child a smartphone. To feel like your kids are somehow deeply deprived of meaning and acceptance because you haven’t caved in this area. And like you’ll ruin their lives drastically and permanently if you don’t allow them to be part of the in-crowd and get the latest iPhone. For crying out loud, our kids can be the worst culprit in trying to convince us of these things! However, they simply are not true. But what is the truth?

The truth is, in my counseling office, I cannot begin to report to you the number of tween and teen clients who are there because of something related directly to unmonitored use of their very own smart phone—social media bullying, social media drama, body image issues, depression, sleep issues, anxiety and lots of pornography addiction. These are just a few of the issues that stem from the combination of kids and their smartphones. It seems that it’s become the norm for anyone age 9 or older to be walking around with their very own personal computer—keys to the world, so to speak. And yet, we wouldn’t give a 9-year-old keys to a car, would we?

You see, until about age 25 the pre-frontal cortex—that is the part of the brain in charge of decision making and impulse control—is still developing. I’m not suggesting we wait until our teeny boppers hit their 20’s to hand over a cell, but I am suggesting we really examine the age our culture has deemed appropriate. At age 14, children’s brains are making more neural connections per second than at any other time in their lives (aside from the first year of life). Their norms are forming—social, sexual, body and moral norms. Now ask yourself, how does the internet swamp contribute to that development? How about social media usage? How about addictive feedback loops that are intentionally engineered by social media managers?

The truth is, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be set apart from this world and have renewed minds that seek Him. Romans 12:2 says,

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and perfect and acceptable will of God.

Is it a sin to have a smartphone? Absolutely not. Do smartphones usher in a lot of sin when not used responsibly? Absolutely. And it’s tough for someone with an undeveloped brain to know what responsible use of this device looks like.

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When is an appropriate age for a teen to have a smartphone? My professional suggestion is 16—and even then, you don’t just give them a phone and walk away. You give them a phone along with frequent conversations about the responsibility they must practice when using it. You give them a phone along with parental controls and accountability software. You give them a phone with a list of understood rules and a contract they sign stating they understand the rules. Giving our teens a smartphone without standards is equivalent to handing them a bottle of Tylenol and telling them to wash it down with some Jack Daniels. It’s not okay!

Here’s the bottom line. Tweens and teens do not have adult brains and they need our help and protection to become healthy, functioning adults who love the Lord. They need our help to avoid a world chalked full of the enemy’s traps for them. With that in mind, I suggest the following bare minimum guidelines for those who choose to let their teens or tweens own a personal smart device.  

1.     Set parental controls so that adult content may not be viewed.

2.     Do not allow a social media account on their phone. If your child simply MUST have social media accounts, set it up so they can access them only on a family computer.

3.     Do not allow phones to stay in their bedrooms.

4.     Keep phones locked from 7pm- 7am.

5.     Do frequent and random content checks.

6.     Install accountability software.

One final point: I know we don’t all have complete control over what our kids do. As stated above, I am a step-mom, which means I don’t control if my step-son has a smartphone or not. But I can still encourage him to live a life of godly standards. A life that’s set apart. I can encourage him and I can encourage all of us. When we choose to protect our kids hearts and minds from the multitude of dangers lurking on a very dark and adult world wide web, we say yes to living a life that’s set apart for Jesus. No matter how hard it seems, no matter what fight we’re up against, it’s worth it.

Let us not grow weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
— Galatians 6:9