When I was in high school, I was eager to turn 16 so I could drive. To my advantage, my parents were equally eager to stop being my personal Uber. So as a family we began the process of getting my driver’s license.
Getting a license can be a pretty intimidating process. You need to take a course, then pass a test (which most people fail the first time), then you apply to receive your permit. In some states, you need to have your permit for a year before you can get your license. And while you have your permit, you take lessons from a professional driving instructor and log hours while driving supervised, both during the day and at night. Finally, you take a driving test with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
Oh, and while doing this you are purchasing a vehicle, applying for insurance, learning how to drive a stick-shift, figuring out how to change a flat with the hidden spare, etc.
At Axis, an organization which helps parents guide their children as they face life’s questions and challenges, we think a similar mindset needs to be taken with smartphones. In the same way that you don’t hand your kids the keys to a car without any training and simply say “Good luck,” you shouldn’t hand them a smartphone and say, “What could go wrong?”
Their lives, your life, and others’ lives hang in the balance physically, legally, and spiritually. In short, we advise against giving your children a phone if you are not ready to have a conversation with them about it multiple times a week for multiple years.
Your family is on a journey together of enjoying, leveraging, and self-regulating your phones. And there is a destination! It is when your son or daughter has demonstrated integrity and has learned how to self-regulate his or her phone (that is, your kids no longer have limits imposed by you; they impose their own limits). Usually this happens in their junior or senior year of high school.
Every journey has milestones. Here are some of the key milestones on the “Smartphone Ed” journey:
1. Goal: Heart and destination
Always start with your child’s heart in mind and with the end of the journey in sight. Your goal is to mentor your child so that his or her heart loves righteousness. This goes so much deeper than behavior management. You want them to be able to use a phone with wisdom, joy, and without your oversight. You want them to be independent and able to self-regulate.
2. Ownership: Stewardship and leasing
If God owns everything, He owns all phones. As a parent, you are responsible to God as the ultimate steward of your child’s phone.
A great way to help steward your children’s hearts and phones is by making a family contract that they sign in order to “lease” their phones from you. There are lot of great contracts online that you can use for inspiration. (Also, consider having your child contribute financially to the costs involved with the phone.)
3. Privacy: A privilege
Make this your mantra: We are better in community than in isolation. Therefore, as parents we recommend that you have access to the phone at any time and have access to all login information and settings.
This sounds harsh, but your child does not have a right to “phone privacy.” Explain that privacy is earned through demonstrating integrity and that even adults often relinquish this right to others in order to steer clear of temptation or misuse of their phones. Remember: We are better in community than in isolation, so make sure you are modeling this to your kids!
If worse comes to worst and you must take your child’s phone away, always remember that to the next generation, a phone is an extension of their identity. Taking it away is taking away part of who they are and their access to community. Never take it away lightly, and when you do, clearly explain what needs to happen for you to give it back.
4. Capacity: Incremental responsibility
Phones are amazing and can accomplish thousands of functions. Upon first leasing your child a phone, we recommend you severely limit the phone’s functionality. Be warned, this may be a point of contention, but it’s a great opportunity to refer to the contract you had them sign. Remind them that as they learn to wisely use their phones, over time they will have fewer and fewer restrictions.
Okay, here we go. When they first get a phone …
- The App Store should never be left on and should be restricted. Any app on the phone will require your approval to download and update.
- Texting/email should not be allowed unless you have access to all messages on a mirrored and separate device. Here’s the principle behind this: Seeing themselves being seen.
- Social media is not allowed (unreal, we know) until trust and open communication are proven. Our reasoning is that there’s really no way to monitor social media. If you do at some point choose to allow your child to have a social media account, proceed with caution and be aware of the mental and emotional health problems that can be caused or triggered by social media. We highly recommend that parents also join whatever social media platform their kids are on. It’s beneficial for you to experience it.
- Internet browsers need to be filtered and have built-in accountability reporting. There are obvious sexual risks involved with full access to the internet, not to mention sexual predators. Think of a filter like a wall. A wall helps, but if you’re clever, you can always find a way around it. Your long-term goal should be to help them understand what triggers them so they can willingly build their own wall. The best “wall” is not actually a filter, but a community of friends and mentors to whom they are accountable.
None of this will work if you are not first modeling it.
5. Boundaries: To be fully present
One story stands out to us as to why boundaries are important. We asked a 13-year-old teen what her plans were for the evening. She responded, “I’m going to go home and watch my parents stare at their phones.”
Here are some of the things we’ve seen great families do to limit the incessant beckoning of their phones.
First, they limit which apps are actually on their phones and how each app’s notifications work. Some dads refuse to have email on their phones because it causes them to work at home when they should be enjoying their families. Some moms turn off notifications for social media and even texting because they know they check them enough already.
Second, families agree to a technology curfew for all devices in the evening and the morning. A helpful curfew is no devices from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. (We recommend setting a gentle alarm that goes off at 8 p.m. every night to remind you of the curfew. Make it the bad guy.)
Third, great families never allow devices in the bedroom, especially at night. Instead they buy everyone alarm clocks and charge all of their devices in a common area while everyone sleeps. This helps the devices stay charged during the day, helps everyone sleep better at night, and helps the family avoid temptations.
Your greatest competition
We’re sure we missed some milestones, but after 10 years in the teen/technology space, we think the above list is a great place to start. However, we want to give you a final warning. When we speak to parents, we ask, “When you parent, what is your greatest competition?” You may be surprised by the answer. A parent’s greatest competition is… other parents.
Here’s what we mean. Just like your student experiences peer pressure, you will experience pressure from other parents regarding smartphones and discipleship. You’re going to have to call some tough shots and graciously disagree with how other parents set boundaries for their own kids. Know that this is normal and don’t be discouraged. Always stay humble, be teachable, and stick to your convictions.
Adapted by permission from a chapter David Eaton wrote for The Art of Parenting, by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.