Right Turns Only: Smartphone Guidance for Parents of Older Teens

When I was sixteen, I passed my driving test and obtained a license.

And this was not a good thing.  

I had three accidents and totaled two cars within the first six months. My poor, patient parents enrolled me in driving school and mapped out a driving path to my high school that included no highways and right turns only. What should have been a fifteen-minute drive took forty-five. 

While my parents did their best to “fix” my driving errors, the reality is that I just wasn’t ready to drive. I wasn’t given enough driving experience, and we didn’t talk much about the rules of the road. Because I was ill-equipped and lacked experience, I was not prepared to handle independent driving. 

smartphone in the hands of a teen is not all that different from car keys in the hands of a teen. If our kids are not well prepared to enter adulthood with a good understanding of how to handle having a phone, then the results can be devastating, not only for our children but for those around them. Eventually, with appropriate accountability, our older teens may benefit from more freedom with their phones while still under the protective cover of our home.

The Driving Analogy 
The Permit Stage of Phone Use

When a teen receives their first phone, it is like the “permit stage.” We keep a very close watch on what kind of user they are: are they more cautious or do they tend to test boundaries? We also provide Biblical and practical principles regarding the phone, and we inform (and exemplify) what healthy habits with technology look like. Often, parents require their teenagers to return the phone at the end of each day, knowing that the final authority over the use of the phone rests with mom and dad. 

The purpose of a driving permit is for a teen to gain adequate experiencewith a parent in the car, to know how to handle varying situations they’ll encounter on the road. During the permit stage, our teen learns from the information we give and the example we set.  They apply their new knowledge under our close supervision, and at the end of each driving experience they give the car back to us.

The Early License Stage of Phone Use

If our teen remains perpetually in the permit stage, they will never really learn the additional responsibilities and challenges that come with being an independent driver. So, it’s important that our teen obtains their license and drives without mom and dad. If we take our responsibilities seriously during the permit stage, this transition is often a positive one. 

But in these first several months of independent driving, there are still boundaries in place, including driving family members only (in most states), avoiding dangerous driving conditions, and parents coming alongside to help with car trouble. In this stage, parents reserve the right to withhold driving privileges if a compelling reason presents itself.

Similarly, by the time our teens are juniors or seniors in high school, it’s important to provide them with a little more independence with their phone while still maintaining appropriate rules and guidelines. 

This “early license” stage cannot be overlooked! Most teens will struggle to jump from the “permit stage,” where the parents keep a very strict watch on phone use, to adulthood when they have the liberty to handle their phones as they wish. This in-between time provides a safety net for our teens to make mistakes, but still be corrected and disciplined by their parents. 

This further independence is going to look different within each family. For some, parents might allow their child to move their phone to their room overnight (this is eventually going to happen for those who move into a dorm room or apartment); for others this might mean that parents stop checking phones daily, applying more trust as kids get older. Some families choose to allow their teens to download a form of social media that had previously not been allowed. 

Remember that the amount of independence granted may also differ from child to child. One child might have more or less independence at an earlier age than their younger sibling. This is why in the permit stage, we pay close attention to how each individual handles the phone. 

Again, by the time our teen enters adulthood, they will be the ones making choices with regard to their phone, so there is wisdom in allowing a little more freedom while they are still in your home where you can have conversations about the challenges with each newfound freedom. If we only allow them to make “right turns” with their phone, they will not be well prepared to handle the choices, distractions, and disruptions that are inevitable when, as an adult, they have full access to the use of their phone.  

The Gospel Hope 

As your teen grows and gains more independence, remember that God is as much in control of your child’s heart as he was when you were “controlling” his use of the phone. Jesus will do his work in your teen’s life, and we can’t do anything to force, remove, or hurry this reality. Our job is to be faithful in teaching them God’s love and applying that gospel truth to every area of life, including their use of technology. 

What’s more, we must teach our kids to stop comparing themselves to their neighbors. Our eyes need to shift from our perpetual sideways glances and look up, seeking wisdom from Jesus and his Word. He will provide you with the insight necessary as you make decisions for your child (Proverbs 2:6). God cares about our faithfulness to him, not whether we are handling our older teen’s phone just like the family across the street.

As you prayerfully consider how the Lord is leading you to guide your older teens, here is the beautiful truth about God’s faithfulness: the work of Jesus in your teen’s life is not dependent on you. He uses your positive influence, but he also works through your mistakes and missteps. Our goal, in every decision we make about phones and beyond, is to point them to Jesus, the One in whom we can fully trust as we prepare our teens to drive into adulthood. 

Katie is a writer, teacher, and speaker. She is married to Chris, a PCA pastor at Trinity church in St. Louis, MO, and is a mother to three wonderful kids. Katie works as the Director of Music Ministries and Special Events at Trinity and writes for several Christian ministries and organizations. She received her Master of Arts in Theology from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. More information can be found on her website at www.katiepolski.com

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