TRANSCRIPT: Should I let my twelve-year-old have a smartphone?

October 21, 2015

Welcome back to the Questions and Ethics program with Russell Moore. I am Daniel Patterson. We’ve got an interesting question for you today, Dr. Moore. This question comes from a parent who says I’ve got a twelve-year-old. All his friends have smartphones, iPads, laptops, but I’ve got some concerns myself. Should I get my twelve-year-old a smartphone?

Well, you are really hitting on a sensitive area for me because this is something that just is a continual point of amazement to me are kids, not just age twelve, but even much younger than this who have iPhones and iPads and so forth. My kids are among the only ones in the neighborhood who aren’t walking around with smartphones. And so I really think this is an important question because I have to reflect all the time on my gratitude to God for the fact that as a Gen-Xer I came of age right before the digital revolution because if I had come of age just a little bit later, I think it would have been new enough that my parents probably wouldn’t have known what all sorts of trouble one could get into, and if I had had access to the internet I would have just completely destroyed myself. I mean, I know myself, and I know my weaknesses enough to know that that would have been the case.

And so I think when we are thinking about smartphones there are a couple of things that we need to keep in mind. One of those is that you are dealing with a situation in which porn is more trafficked on the internet than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. It is not simply that pornography is out there—it is that pornography is an industry that has every interest in using the technology to drive people toward it. So when you are just sending kids out into the Wild Wild West of unrestricted internet access you really have a Proverbs 7 sort of situation of sending a child into a place where there is danger that can be spiritually deadly.

And it is also true that you are dealing with children who are in the most vulnerable stage in that adolescent era in terms of creating the habits that are going to be with them for the rest of their lives and also in terms of writing their sexual scripts. I mean the images—now one of the powers that pornography has is to embed images and to embed scripts that for a developing young man or young woman can last for a lifetime.

And it’s not just pornography; it’s also a situation where one is developing one’s brain in terms of imagination and in terms of attention. I mean just think about how frustrating it is even for those of us who have given great attention in our lives to other things, to academics or Bible study or other things, to be distracted by the sort of digital world where everything is immediate and everything is constantly sort of barking at you like a carnival barker as you are walking past it. This can have serious repercussions.

So I think when it comes to smartphones it is not so much the same thing as saying we are going to allow our child to watch television—It’s more along the lines of we are going to send our child into this strip club because he or she is going to have to eventually know how to navigate not going into strip clubs when the child is grown. That’s not a Christian way of seeing the nurture of children. And so I would not get a smartphone that has easy access to the internet on it at all. And even when you are using programs that are blocking inappropriate sites, those programs often are able to be circumvented especially by digital natives who are typically more adept with those sorts of things than their parents are.

Now, I think there are options out there. One of the things that my wife and I are looking at are phones that would have cellular service and would have a restriction on the numbers being called and also on the text messaging capability so that we have approved numbers and people that are loaded in, including 911, where adolescents can call or text with their parents or with other people that their parents are aware of and approving of without sending them over into the cyberwilderness. And I mean we also do this with for instance an iPad. I have an iPad that when one of my sons is traveling with me I disable the internet on it and simply load it up with games or books or those sorts of things that I want my child to have when we are on a plane or when we are on a train or whatever we are doing. There are all sorts of ways that parents can do that.

And then as a child starts to get older you’re gradually giving more and more freedom as the child is showing maturity and showing responsibility. I just was told the other day about a dad who with his sons they are all Covenant Eyes accountability partners with one another, the dad and the sons. I thought that was beautiful. You have these older teenage sons that the dad is treating like men and part of what it means to be a man is a moral accountability to one another and the dad is not putting himself as kind of above this but he is putting himself right there in the struggle with these sons and showing them what it means to be accountable. I think that’s a beautiful sort of story.

But when it comes to smartphones I would just say jesus tells us that even the pagans wouldn’t give to their child a snake when he asks for a fish or a scorpion when he asks for an egg, and I think that we need to have that sort of wisdom. There’s just too much at stake to turn a developing psyche loose with no boundaries with a technology that could psychically and spiritually cripple him or her or a future family for that matter for a lifetime. And then beyond a lifetime.

And technology is good. We need to be grateful and glad that we have it. But that doesn’t mean that we turn our children over to the cyberwilderness.

Thanks for joining the Questions and Ethics program. If you have a question that you would like Dr. Moore to answer, email it to [email protected] and we will be back again next week to help you apply the gospel to the pressing issues of the day.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a former President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. His book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24