Ask any parent of a preteen and they will tell you: the prospect of giving their child a smartphone gives them insomnia and heartburn. While it is a difficult and significant decision, it is also an opportunity to disciple your child toward relationship with Jesus as Lord over every part of life.
Below are a few guiding principles about technology followed by a wealth of practical insights from parents that are a step ahead in the effort to tame the technology tiger. (We are not covering social media in this article as we would not recommend any social media platforms to new phone users. For older teenagers, please see our series Why Teens Compulsively Use Social Media.)
A Few Guiding Principles
1. Do not fear but bring your concern and the decision under the authority of God.
Change is nothing new. Advancing technologies never take God by surprise or frustrate his purposes for his people. Because he is sovereign and he is good, parents need not be daunted by the challenges of our particular cultural moment.
2. Do commit yourself to honor the Lord in how you think about and use technology.
Today’s teenagers cannot afford for their parents to be naive about the potential dangers of smartphone usage. Just as we would not drop our kids off in the middle of a major city without significant guidance on how to navigate safely, we are responsible to equip our children to use devices well.
“Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:8-10). God stands ready, willing, and able to give you the wisdom you need (Jas. 1:5). For every decision in the smartphone process (and the journey of discernment goes on for years), ask God to give you the light you need for the next step.
3. Receive the grace of the Lord because you will not do this perfectly.
No one has all the answers. There is no formula for doing this right. You will make mistakes and your child will too. Let’s give up striving for perfection and rest in knowing that God’s grace is sufficient for the technology challenges ahead.
4. Aim for deeper relationship with your child.
Do your best to develop an open and honest relationship with your kids. To the extent that it’s possible, do this over phone-free meals, walks, or rides in the car. Teenagers say that the more open and honest their parents are, the easier it is to be open and honest in return. Look them in the eye and encourage them to tell you when they see something that is inappropriate. Don’t be shocked or make them feel shame, but celebrate the fact that they came to you at all. Let your kids know that they will encounter a lot on the internet (and everywhere in the world) that is not God-honoring. Let them know that if they tell you, they will not get in trouble. Sometimes an issue that looks like trouble can turn into a good conversation. God can redeem whatever we encounter along the way.
Remind your child that your best defense is a good offense. You can not possibly protect your child from everything they will encounter, but you can equip them with how to think well about technology from the get-go. We help our kids develop a Christ-influenced filter so that they can learn to use their devices and the internet wisely.
5. Begin with yourself.
If we may step on some toes for a moment: please consider what your own smartphone behavior will teach your child. Obviously we train our children not to text and drive, but do we grab our phones at every stoplight (demonstrating how we can’t let that phone alone ourselves)? Don’t put conversations with your kids on hold – even if you aren’t talking about something special – when a more interesting text comes in. Take care not to stand on the sidelines of the game talking on the phone instead of talking to their teammates’ parents. Relax before bed by low-key chatting with your family or reading a book instead of scrolling aimlessly. Ask yourself if you know how to just be present with your child, and if not, ask God for help with that. As in so many things, our teenagers will be guided by our example. Let’s set wise boundaries around our own phones, and our kids will find it natural to do the same.
If the way I interact with technology prevents me from abiding in Christ or disrupts my presence with other people, I need to change how I use my devices. Let’s lead our children to live that same paradigm.
With these things in mind, the team here at Rooted asked some seasoned parents to offer practical wisdom to help navigate these choppy waters.
Before You Buy
Consider your child.
Every parent we spoke with emphasized the importance of considering your individual child as you make decisions. Mom and dad, you know your child better than anyone, so consider what aspects of cellphone usage will tempt your child and develop your guidelines accordingly. One child may forget for days on end that she owns a phone while her identical twin is obsessed with the device from the moment you place it in her hands. You won’t necessarily predict these things accurately, either, so pray often, supervise the phone daily, and keep communication with your child open at all times.
If you have more than one child, they will compare who got what model smartphone at what age with what rules in place. Be prepared to have different cell phone trajectories for different children. They will accuse you of being unfair. Hold the line on the policies you have set to protect your individual child, even if it looks different from sister’s.
What is your goal?
Ask yourself why your child needs a smartphone. (Yes, “needs”- in most cases, a phone is not a need but a want.) Consider what functions you want your child to have on a device, and why they need those capabilities. Your child may receive group communications for study groups or teams, and you may be ready for your child to manage those notifications. Your own needs as a parent may drive your device selection. When I became a single mom, I needed my older two sons to be able to call me after sports practices because I did all the driving myself.
Once you determine why your child needs a device, you have options. You do not have to start with a smartphone. For example, Bark phones allow complete parent customization (even monitoring texts for words that might signal bullying, depression, or self harm). In selecting a device, think in terms of levels of use: start with calling. After time, prayer, and conversation, your child might graduate to texting. Internet access may come later, once the child has proven he or she will abide by the rules. Add apps on a case-by-case basis, talking through the God-honoring and God-dishonoring capacities of each one. At each step evaluate your goals. What are you trying to accomplish in your child’s life with each new freedom you allow?
Educate yourself and your child.
Several families we spoke with read My Tech-Wise Life: Growing Up and Making Choices in a World of Devices together with their children before purchasing a phone. Written by young adult Amy Crouch alongside her dad Andy Crouch, My Tech-Wise Life (Rooted’s 2020 winner for best new book for teenagers) provides ways for kids and parents to discuss smartphone issues together. Best of all, the Crouches remind readers that Scripture is our solid foundation and Jesus, our most intimate connection, even in a tech-crazy world. By teaching your child to prioritize their relationship with Jesus, followed by relationships with people, you’ll help them develop a biblically sound paradigm for every (gradual) step they take toward independence from parental authority. (Other good resources include Social Sanity in an Insta World by Sarah Eckhoff Zylstra, FaceTime: Your Identity in a Selfie World by Kristen Hatton and Liked: Whose Approval Are You Living For? by Kari Kampakis).
Ah, the question we all want answered: when do I give my child a phone? All of the above should play into the decision, with prayer guiding every step. You aren’t searching for a perfect time. You are not in a hurry (even though your child wants you to be). You’re simply walking by faith and trusting the Lord will be with you as you listen for his guidance.
Many families find that if the parents own the device (which are expensive!) then they can easily assert leverage over its use. Other parents find that having a child earn part or all of the money will teach stewardship and responsibility. Decide what your particular child needs to learn with regard to the financial investment in the phone, but be clear that in any case, final authority over its use remains with the parent, no matter who paid for it.
Some parents choose to give the smartphone for a special occasion, such as a birthday or Christmas. Keep in mind that giving the phone as a gift implies the child owns the phone.
Present a united front. Mom and dad need to get to the same page about how to handle the phone before the phone enters the house. Talk everything through first; writing a contract together (below) can help. Studies show social media causes more problems for teenagers from single parent families; hopefully our tips here will provide support.
Take advantage of every parental control the device allows. You can set limits on screen time, prevent kids from changing settings or downloading apps, install an app to check text messages, require parental permission for any overrides, etc.
Consider other guardrails:
- limit daily use to thirty minutes or an hour.
- do routine daily checks of all communications.
- phones are only allowed in common spaces in the home, never in their rooms.
- new users do not need access to the internet in their phones.
- do not allow notifications (with the exception of parental texts).
- restrict contacts to a trusted few.
- establish a trial period for a brand new user.
- require your child to place the phone in a designated spot at a certain time each night, and leave it there until morning.
- friends who visit must give their phones to you when they arrive, and inform their parent of this rule.
Sitting down to discuss a contract is a clear indication of responsibility on the part of parent and child to take it really seriously. The contract allows mom and dad to set very clear expectations (because there will be arguments later), convey important values, and dignify the child’s participation in the agreement. Review and possibly revise your contract together each year. The contract signals the parent’s commitment to help the child navigate something new that has a lot of power. With this agreement we demonstrate our intent to hold them to certain standards and to meet them with grace when they make mistakes.
Many parents prefer not to get too specific in the details of the contract, which allows for greater flexibility. Here is a sample contract that might help you think of things to consider when you write your own.
Monitoring usage and content.
Use those parental controls. Staying on top of technology changes requires research and vigilance. Showing your child that you are up-to-date with your information and vigilant with your oversight communicates how much you care (even when they don’t receive it that way.) You can’t know everything, but God does. We are preparing our children to respond safely and wisely when, not if, they come across inappropriate content. Their mistakes are opportunities for us to show them God’s grace.
Be aware that kids can find ways around the defenses we put in place. One mom spoke of the struggle to keep Tik Tok out of the home. She allowed YouTube because her children needed it for school, but found that TikTok content is accessible on YouTube. Sometimes school assignments make safeguards difficult to maintain, and you may have to disable your own blocks from time to time.
Boy, it helps if your child’s friends have parents who are like-minded about cell phones, but chances are there will be at least a few kids in their world who have very different rules (or maybe no rules at all). To the extent that you are comfortable with your own choices, even if those choices make your child’s rules different from their peers, you will be able to persevere with what you believe is best for your child.
Avoid making decisions for your child based on what other parents are doing. If your child sees you making decisions by committee (“well, the Joneses and the Smiths do it this way, so we will too”) then they will learn to be invested in what the crowd is doing rather than being comfortable with what you as mom or dad believe is right before God. Though we don’t aim to be different just for the sake of being different, smartphone usage allows us to show our children commitment to following God rather than going with the flow.
If you do have like-minded parent friends, rejoice and stick together! One mom shared that the parents on her son’s sports team committed to a no cell-phone policy (for now). The boys have watches with no apps and no internet. The kids aren’t wild about it, but these parents are offering their children a testimony to the protective power of godly community.
Pushback from your teenager.
If you are careful and intentional about introducing the cell phone, your child will not appreciate your caution.
When your child expresses frustration with your rules, respect them enough to listen. Acknowledge that in their minds, being different from the other kids may feel like the dead end of their social life. Don’t expect your preteen or teenaged child to think like your middle-aged self. Prayerfully demonstrate flexibility, too. There will come a time when you need to listen to your child and make modifications to the rules or give them a new freedom.
When they do resist, remind your child that parents don’t make rules for our own convenience, we make them for the child’s protection. It won’t hurt to share current articles like “The Phone In the Room” from the New York Times, reinforcing the fact that smartphones have tremendous potential for harm as well as good. You might share about your own struggles with phone overuse, making clear that you have not always found it easy to use the phone wisely.
Finally, take heart. Jesus carries the burden of your child’s life. This applies to technology too. Continue to seek and trust Him. He promises to provide for you and give you peace as you parent. (Prov 3:5-6).