As the father of two young children, the following true-life story from my counseling practice terrifies me.
The mother of a twelve-year-old called me and frantically relayed that her son was considering suicide. As she revealed how her child had gotten to that point, I became increasingly sick to my stomach.
Through a social media app, her son had met a friend with whom he’d developed a quick bond. In time, the son invited his new friend over to his house, but knowing that his parents would disapprove, he didn’t tell them about the visit. If you’ve ever watched To Catch a Predator, you know where this is going. Unfortunately, Chris Hansen wasn’t there to prevent the inevitable from occurring.
The friend was no friend. Rather, he was a sexual predator who entered this family’s home without their knowledge, sexually assaulted their son, and fled before being discovered. When police caught the perpetrator a few days later, they discovered he was HIV+.
This is the nightmare scenario of every parent.
This is the stuff of horror movies.
But this was the tragic reality for one utterly confused and devastated young man.
All because of an app on his smartphone.
Is It Technology’s Fault?
In The Wright Brothers, historian David McCullough described how newspapers and magazines in the nineteenth century warned parents of the dangers of a particular piece of new technology in their day: “Bicycles were proclaimed morally hazardous. Until now children and youth were unable to stray very far from home . . . Young people were not spending the time they should with books.”
What parent today would complain about their child riding a bike? I’d pay my kids to do that. McCullough’s illustration shows we can always find ways to blame technology for culture’s ills. However, technology is neither good nor evil. It’s neutral until it’s put to use by a human. But doesn’t it seem like something sinister lies at the heart of the most widespread technological devices of our day?
The Idiocy of Smart Technology
Just a couple of decades ago we had to be creative to get into real trouble. Now our children can go online in less than a second and discover ten ways to smoke marijuana and every sexual position imaginable. But that may not even be the worst of smart technology’s capabilities.
As my tragic opening story showed—by the way, the son didn’t commit suicide—smart technology now provides strangers access to our children within the supposed safe confines of our homes. Certainly, my client’s story is on the far end of the spectrum of possibilities, but the fact that such an experience is even on the spectrum should cause all of us to seriously consider the role of smart technology in the hands of our children and pre s.
Be Wise. Get Dumb.
Maybe it’s peer pressure, on both the child and the parents.
Maybe it’s laziness. Smartphones make for great entertainment.
Maybe it’s a felt necessity for communication. You need to reach them somehow, right?
But none of those are reason enough to hand your child or preteen personal smart technology that can be used, even innocently, as a gateway to behavior that either leads them astray or leads them right into danger.
Ten-year-olds, the absurd average age in America when a child is first given a smartphone, do not need smartphones. Let me restate that another way: don’t give personal smart technology to your children until they’re in high school. Everything you and they both need—calling and texting—can be accomplished with the “dumb” part of the phone.
What’s the Big Deal?
I’m almost in tears writing this article because I can’t help but think about my two small children. How will “smart” technology’s effect on teen culture affect them in the future? Will my daughter be taken advantage of? Will she receive a request for a nude photo from some boy who’s interested only in what he can get out of her? Will my son be anonymously bullied? Will either child be able to rest from the social pressures of always being connected? Will they feel an insatiable pull toward their phone so they can constantly ensure their coolness by getting likes and posting funny memes?
The fear can be overwhelming at times, but praise God He hasn’t given us a spirit of fear. In addition, praise God who has given us brains, and we must use our God-given fearless minds to set the right kinds of loving parameters for our children when it comes to smart technology use. We must fight against whatever social stigma might be attached to your child not having a smartphone so that wiser minds prevail.
But the first step is the hardest step because it’s a step you have to take.
More often than not, the real problem with smart technology and our kids is us.
We model the behavior our kids mimic. When they see us addicted to our apps, distracted from their discussions, or obsessed with social media, they see such activity as sanctioned from on high. Notice that I purposefully said “we.” I still wrestle with this. If we’re to get serious about prohibiting our children and preteens from using personal smart technology, we must wean ourselves off our own addiction to the same devices.
So What Should I Do If I Want to Go Dumb?
- Sign the Dumb Phone Family Pledge. Make a conscious decision to delay giving personal smart devices to your kids until they’re in high school. Share this article and the pledge website with other families. If enough of us take this pledge, we can save our children from the immense perils of unrestricted access to a world far beyond their understanding. With that said, some kids will be ostracized from their peers for not having a smartphone. Your child may feel bad about himself or herself. Such suffering for doing the right thing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, is God’s primary goal for your child to feel good about themselves or to become holy?
- If your middle-schooler already has a smartphone, take it away from them. Explain why you’re doing so. If they complain, remind them that they don’t actually own the phone or the phone plan anyways. If they bring up your smartphone addiction, be honest about trying to be better about it. You never know: that hard conversation could lead to a more open conversation with your child about the many difficult topics surrounding your kid and today’s technology.
- Alternatively, limit their access. If taking away technology that has already been given seems too extreme, set time limits. Learn how to use any included parental controls on their personal connected devices. Don’t allow them to have logins and passwords that you don’t know about. Require your child to only use his or her device when a parent is in the room with them.
The opening illustration from my practice was a worst-case scenario of how a child could mistakenly cause himself harm because of a seemingly harmless app on his smartphone. But even if such a situation never happens to your child, his or her emotional, mental, and spiritual health is still at stake—and I believe that’s something worth putting your phone down for.