WHEN SHOULD I GIVE MY CHILD A PHONE?
By Kate Stevens
A friend of mine told her kids that she would be sending them articles and podcasts from time to time to read or listen to with the intention of them talking about them as a family. She has four teenagers (two of her own and two Russian foreign exchange students), and one is fast approaching. After a few months, she notified her daughter that she would pass along this podcast she wanted her to listen to—the reply: “Ugh. Is it another one about teenagers and cell phones?”
Her mother is gracious and patient, so I imagine her just smiling and patting her daughter on the head while saying, “Yes, most definitely.”
Teenagers and cell phones is an overwhelming topic, especially if you work with this age group regularly. On the one hand, you know how important their cell phone is to them because there is so much it represents: status, relevancy, and connectivity. On the other hand, you know some of the dangers it can wield: addiction, isolation, and anxiety (I say “some” because of the ever-changing nature of technology. I read a quote recently from an “ethical hacker” that said: “Show me a twelve-foot wall, and I’ll build a fourteen-foot ladder”).
And the tension between adults and teenagers over technology, especially cell phones, is a common topic of conversation and frustration. Some of that may be due to teens wondering who is keeping their parents in check with their cell phone usage while laying out ground rules for their offspring. Maybe because the argument of “your brain is not fully developed” is something our youth are not buying, no matter how many glow-in-the-dark charts of their brains psychologists show them. Maybe it is just a sinful posture of “I want what I want when I want it like everyone else” that has a serious grasp on everyone involved. Whichever way it lands, it is a genuine issue that does indeed get a lot of airtime across various fields of study.
And it truly is a remarkable thing. When I was a biblical worldview teacher for juniors, I did an experiment where we studied the sociology of six different major worldviews. On a random day, I showed up to their first-period class with a box and took all their cell phones and smart watches away for one school day. Just one. Most were furious. By the end of the school day, a few said they felt phantom vibrations in their pockets or wrists because they were so used to it. A few still maintained their anger. Most said they did not want their phones back because they enjoyed the relief I gave them for one day not to have to keep up with an online presence. The next day I asked if anything would change, and they all said no.
I could recount many more stories like this of the tension between having one and needing one but not really wanting to be tethered like that and not wanting to be outside of culture. If you look for a study on the effects of cell phones on the teenage brain, you will surely find it—they are ubiquitous. There are lots of walls you can build and rules you can set in place. Some parents use their kid’s cell phones as the carrot to instill good behavior and grades, while others use them to keep second-by-second tabs on their speed and whereabouts. The apps, the time usage, and the functionality of everything seem endless.
It is no wonder I hear many conversations among parents and students about how this cell phone game works in their homes and, more often than not, how it’s not working.
The question often asked is, “At what age do I give my child a cell phone?” And that is a logical question because we, as parents, like benchmarks and milestones. We’ve been conditioned for it. When my oldest was a few months old, her pediatrician asked if she could roll over. When I said no, he promptly told me she would be a struggling reader, so I had better model rolling over and start doing exercises with her. He had a target for my un-roly poly that she simply did not meet. We have laws in place that prevent toddlers from driving, teens from drinking, and young people from renting vans.
But this doesn’t work universally for our kids in every realm. There are very few things in parenting where numerical benchmarks are useful. Instead, we should ask, “What characteristics does my child need to show in order to get a cell phone?”
This gives our kids something to grow into rather than passively waiting for that magic number. We know we are responsible for their moral character and development, ultimately teaching and modeling the gospel. We also know they aren’t machines we can program.
Cell phones are just tools, so this is wielding that tool in a different way.
Four Traits to Show Before Getting a Cell Phone
This is not exhaustive and certainly could and should be considered and revised for your own family. But maybe this will serve as a launching point.
This includes everything from physically managing the stuff to showing trustworthiness to demonstrating self-control. If a twelve-year-old constantly leaves their things strewn about and loses items very quickly, then use the concept of responsibility as something they need to show in order to be trusted with a more expensive tool.
Likewise, if you can’t trust them to obey a simple command like emptying the dishwasher, you will likely be unable to trust them not to download certain apps.
2. More Interested in Others Than Self
A fourteen-year-old who always puts herself first in line to get food, first to sit in the front seat, and first to do everything in her world will be more interested in her screen than the people around her.
Another form of hospitality is being kind to those around you, even if a cell phone is in your pocket. This is a simple way to teach our kids why we put people before objects.
3. Can Handle the Word “No”
The mark of maturity is noting how a child (or an adult, for that matter) handles the word no. Imagine a child who is never denied anything. They have learned no control over their impulses, desires, words, or body parts. In essence, there is a total void of discipline.
Not only is self-control a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 6), but dying to the self is a command. In 2 Corinthians 15:5, Paul says we no longer live to the self. John 12:25 says that if we love our life, we will lose it, but we must die like a seed so that we can bear fruit.
The fallout of a thirteen-year-old of this caliber with a cell phone is truly tragic.
4. Enjoyment of Life
Lastly, do your kids show general enjoyment and wonder in life? We are ultimately trying to foster the taste level of the Creator, so we all should value and enjoy what God does. You don’t have to go live on the side of a mountain to appreciate and look for birds, wildflowers, a sunset, bugs under a rock, a crispy crust on bread, good poetry, the hospitality of another family, bright stars, total silence, a laughing baby, etc.
A cell phone is a great tool when kept in its proper rank in our lives. However, it can quickly supersede its place with various distractions.
In “The Tech-Wise Family,” Andy Crouch says, “When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.”