My wife and I were recently discussing a preteen who used to play with one of our kids. She seemed to be very outgoing and sweet, often going out of her way to greet us. Over time, however, we noticed that she no longer continued with such cheerful behavior. The family hadn’t moved or changed schools, and there appeared to be no severe family trauma such as a divorce. There was one change, however, we did notice: she got a cell phone. Most often when we see her, she is on that phone, seemingly oblivious to the world.
This isn’t the first time we have noted the difference between kids how kids behave before they have a cell phone and how they behave afterwards. You’ve likely noticed noticed the changes as well, since 94% of Gen Z teens have a smartphone, despite the research linking smartphone usage to mental health problems. Given the ubiquity of smartphones, pre-teens and teenagers often see acquiring a cell phone as a God-given and necessary right. The simple strategy of just saying “no” to a smartphone seems almost unreasonable given that many school communications take place over Messenger and other social media platforms.
Parents can turn to the timeless wisdom of God’s Word when they face the difficultly of navigating smartphones. Colossians 3:9 says that we are to put on the new self, which is continually being renewed in the image of Christ. This should be not only our personal aim, but our hope for our kids as well. Below are three suggestions for parents as they approach this tricky subject while simultaneously pointing their kids toward Christlikeness.
If they don’t own one, hold off as long as you can
The early years of a child’s life are critical for social, emotional, and physical development. Children should be encouraged to socialize and communicate in physical, in-person situations. Most communication and coordination in the pre-teen and early adolescent years goes through the parents, so there may not be a real need for a phone. However, parents too can feel the pressure to succumb from other parents. Remember 94% of Gen Z teens have a smartphone!
We are by no means perfect parents in this area, but our oldest is in middle school and does not have a cell phone, nor has he shown the desire to have one. My wife and I recognize that this is rare for a pre-teen, and he is only 11, so the situation may change in the future. We have done what we can to encourage physical play, creative pursuits, and social interaction – things that don’t involve a smartphone. Both our kids use our phones under our direct supervision when the situation calls for it.
Proverbs 22:6 says, “train a child in the way they should go and when they are older they will not depart from it.” That verse especially rings true here. The social and relational practices they pick up in these years will follow them the rest of their lives. The more you instill a home built on God’s love, trust, physical interaction, and creative play in the early years, the less likely it is that our children will be overly dependent on a smartphone to meet their needs for intimacy, relationships, and emotional connection later in life, needs only Jesus himself can meet.
Engage them in offline activities
I am old enough to remember life before the cell phone, not just the smartphone. People survived, they communicated with each other, and kids actually entertained themselves.
There’s no shortage of cell phone-free entertainment for pre-teens. We try to funnel our kids into artistic projects, creative pursuits, board games, puzzles, books of riddles, and other brain teasers. Find ways to make those activities purposeful and create goals that they can meet. Those types of activities tend to force more interaction, especially if done in groups.
Reading is a healthy option to not only develop them mentally and emotionally, but also to help them grow in their faith. Set up a Bible reading plan with your child. Buy Christian books that can help them grow in their faith and read the book along with them.
Sports, physical activities, and artistic pursuits such as dance or playing an instrument are other ways to break dependence on a smartphone. Thanks be to God, there is an abundance of options to entertain and develop a child or a teen that doesn’t involve a smartphone.
If your child already has a phone, or you feel that it is inevitable that they need one, set limits. I would encourage you to have legal or at least financial ownership of the phone. Try to avoid the “if you can earn enough to pay for it, it’s yours” mindset. It’s too dangerous of a tool at this age to leave with unfettered access.
You as the parent need to be involved in the acquisition of the smartphone in some way. If they are already accustomed to unfettered access, have the uncomfortable conversation of taking charge in setting these limits. Base these limits on the child, their age, and their history, but do set some form of accountability. You can limit usage of the internet, amount of time spent online, block websites, and grant or deny access to certain apps.
Just because a child says they are being responsible doesn’t mean they are. Our children are fallen creatures who are prone to sin. While serving as a youth pastor, many teens have confessed that they access pornography via their smartphones, something they never admitted to their parents. If they persist in resisting authority in this area, it would be best to take the phone away, either temporarily or permanently.
Image of Christ
The subject of smartphones triggers many of the deepest fears and anxieties in parents, but our goal is to consider what shapes our children into the image of Christ, not what creates avid smartphone users. We have a higher calling in mind. God sent his Holy Spirit to be a guide for us parents, covering our flaws with his grace and continually reminding us of who we and our kids are and how we can look more like Christ.
Interested in more gospel-centered and biblical guidance with technology? Rooted Reservoir Family Discipleship has just launched a new course on “Navigating Technology.” Learn more here!