How should today’s parents be thinking when it comes to digital technology, especially smartphones? And how can they wisely approach the extremes of being fearful of technology and being careless with technology?
Julie Masson: Parents today need to realize that technology is not just something to be aware of, but rather it is something that is pivotal to our lives. For example, our teenagers will likely have teachers request that they download a certain app to be used in the classroom. So, if we continue to see technology as something that is purely evil, we will miss out on the practical way our society uses technology. Banning our children from ever using it may actually hinder them more than it will protect them.
On the other hand, we need to be aware of the dangers that come with technology, and in particular, smartphones. They give our children instant access to the world and to their friends (and strangers). One of the worst things we can do as a parent is to simply hand over a smartphone and let them loose.
Our children need to be taught how to use technology properly. Just like we teach our teenagers how to drive by sitting in the passenger seat and coaching them around that first turn, we need to sit down with our children and show them how to “drive” a smartphone.
We need to explain the various social media apps and how we use them. We should show our kids interactions we have on social media so they can ask questions. We must give a lesson on digital “stranger danger” and help our children know what’s OK to share online and what’s not (your address, your school, your job, etc.). And we have to set boundaries that help protect them from danger.
Dorena Williamson: I believe that looking at technology as a tool can be very helpful. Each generation tends to wish things were “the way it used to be,” because it takes effort to embrace change. Technology progresses and shifts as it should, and there are some beneficial ways it can be utilized: As a tool of better communication, connectivity, research, and learning. We must constantly turn our worry about it into prayer and proceed in good works infused with faith.
Our family approaches access to technology as a privilege—that most people in the world do not have—that should be utilized with the constant companion of wisdom. I believe we should give age-appropriate instruction and warning to our kids. Proverbs lays out both the benefits of good choices and the consequences of bad choices, which is an excellent way to approach our families’ standards with everything, including technology.
There’s a lot of pressure on parents to give their kids phones, particularly smartphones, at younger ages. How do they resist this pressure?
JM: Our children are 10, 8, and 6. We haven’t landed on what age we will allow them to have a smartphone, but we do know that we will likely start with a “dumb” phone or get them a watch that allows calling to four predetermined numbers. It’s important to discuss these things with your spouse and other peers because there are no easy answers.
The questions my husband and I are currently thinking about regarding smartphone usage are: When will they need a phone for more than just calling or texting to let us know their practice is over and need a ride home? When we think they are in need of this, should we pay for it? Or should they buy the phone and the monthly plan with their own money? Or vice versa?
DW: I try to keep the big picture before my kids, who now range from 14 to 24 years old: comparing ourselves to other people will always make us feel better or less than. And neither is the truth. We shouldn’t respond to peers with pride or dejection because we do or don’t have the latest phone. Someone will always have the latest thing before we do. It's not easy, but I think we can keep reminding our children (and ourselves) of the “why,” and build understanding that will serve them later on.
We must also resist judging others for their reality and technological needs. Fewer people opt to have landlines, and, a single parent navigating custody may need their younger tween to have a phone. Or, a working parent may need to hear that their child’s practice ended early.
In your view, is there an ideal age to give kids a smartphone?
JM: I think that depends on the family and the child. If we had a child that was travelling for sports on weekends, we would at least send them with a flip phone. But I really can’t imagine a scenario when our young children would need a smartphone.
Determining when to give our children a smartphone should, in part, be based on how much time we are willing to invest in teaching our children the proper way to use it. We need to make time to explain the benefits and disadvantages of using a smartphone. We should also have rules and expectations in place. If we don’t have expectations in place and we don’t have time to sit down with our children to explain how to use a smartphone, we may not be ready to give our children one.
DW: I don’t think there is an ideal age. Just as some kids are responsible enough to be left at home alone at an earlier age, some kids can be trusted with technology at younger ages than others. My mantra was “a phone is primarily for communication,” and that guided our “when.” We used the phone as a way to teach trust, maturity, and wise choices. They earned it, and they lost it.
We found that when our young teen started getting more involved in sports, we needed more communication than, “Use Mrs. Jones’ phone to call us.” That varied with each child. With some extracurricular activities and team sports, it’s more streamlined for the coach to mass communicate with the athletes, and that started for us in middle school.
So generally, when our children are spending more time in activities and a phone can help with communication, that’s a good time to get one, though it doesn’t have to be a smartphone.
What is your advice on limiting screen time?
JM: We need to have a plan. We will only frustrate our kids if we say yes to screen time sometimes, and no other times simply because of how we feel that day. Decide how much time you will allow your kids to be on screens, and then talk to your kids about those rules.
Our family has various screen time rules. Our children can only play the Wii on weekends, and only after their chores are done. We keep an eye on how long they have been on it. We allow computer time once a week while I teach one child how to cook. I have restrictions set so that the only websites they can go to are educational sites I’ve pre-selected.
Also, my 10 year old has her own Nook, and she can be on certain apps (YouTube Kids, for example) for up to 30 minutes per day. We use the Circle with Disney device to help manage how much time she can spend on her Nook.
Device restrictions plus communicating a plan really help keep the frustrations to a minimum. Our kids know what our expectations are regarding screen time, so there is far less arguing about when and what they can do on devices.
DW: Remembering that technology is a tool, and phones should be primarily for communication, is a huge help.
How can parents model, for their kids, the wise use of technology?
JM: This is perhaps the best question to ask ourselves. I can put restrictions on my kids’ devices, limit screen time, and clearly communicate the rules, but if all they see is me looking at my phone, I will have failed. I have to be the one to show them that my smartphone can be a helpful tool, not an idol. I have to show them that conversation with them is more important than whatever is happening on my social media feed at the moment.
For someone like me, who loves to be in communication with the rest of the world through my own smartphone, this is very hard. I’ve had to apologize to my kids for not paying attention to them when they were talking to me. I’ve had to set certain times during my day when I don’t check my phone. During those times, usually before school and the hour after they get home, I plug my phone in and put it on DND (Do Not Disturb).
Whatever our system is, we need to figure out ways to let our kids know that they are far more important than our phones. This has to be intentional, and it has to be strategically thought through. We can’t wing this aspect of our parenting.
DW: As in all areas, we should remember that more is caught than taught, so wisdom should be our companion in using technology as a tool. We should engage with our children when we are face to face with them. And as we live and love those God has entrusted us with, we can look for ways to use technology as a point of connection. For example, my family loves to use The Bible App to discuss the verse for the day, Twitter to talk about the news that’s trending, or the computer to look up our next dream vacation together. One of our children lives out of state, so FaceTiming provides an amazing way for her to join our family time.
As parents we are called to prepare our children to live on mission in a digital world while being wary of the dangers. How can we do this well?
JM: YouTube is the preferred medium of our children’s generation. So, when my daughter tells me about a channel she likes, I watch it with her. We like to watch various YouTube videos as a family and then talk about them. I’ll ask questions about something they observed in the video and try and apply it back to what we know to be true—that we were made to glorify God, that all humans are made in the image of God, etc.
So, I think the key here is to simply talk about technology to our children. Talk about ways people are using technology for good and ways people are using it for harm. I believe this helps them think through how they can use technology for a bigger purpose.
DW: We have used computers and phones with our children to build trust. We ask questions about what messages movies and television shows communicate. It often bugs my kids, but it also makes them think critically. I’m focused on preparing them for living without me and making God-honoring decisions that lead to a beneficial life.
Because I tend to be slow in learning how to use gadgets and upgrades, my teens help me learn. But in conversing together, I am able to get access into how they process the messages they take in and, as a result, teach them as they coach me. I remind them of our family standards—why we think this limitation or that allowance is important.
This digital age has countless opportunities for career paths and areas of ministry that require expertise. So, we can use technology to challenge our kids’ thinking and, perhaps, even guide them toward their God-given purpose.
The article originally appeared in our print publication, Light Magazine. View the latest issue here.