An Ocean of Perils
My grandmother is fascinated by my iPhone. A picture of the two of us is on my lock screen, but she didn’t realize what I was doing when I took the selfie. She still doesn’t really understand the concept of Wi-Fi. Her amazement at what I can do with “that thing” is endless.
Since my parents’ childhood, the typewriter has given way to the text and the landline has become a lifeline—a window to the world that you can hold in the palm of your hand. For them, the world has undergone a dramatic shift. But for my generation, this is just the way things are. They watch the waves come crashing in and wonder what will come of it; we’ve grown up swimming in that ocean.
But I’ve been to the beach enough in my home state to know that drowning is only one of the ocean’s perils. It seems like every day we hear more about the dangers of these little devices. I trust I don’t need to defend the idea that smartphones can be used for good—but how can you help your teen do that, while avoiding the inherent dangers?
Model Purposeful Technology Habits
My mom is one of the more tech-savvy parents I know. She has a smartphone and a tablet, and she does most of her work on the computer. She follows me and my brothers on Instagram and uses Pinterest to figure out lesson plans.
But there’s one thing I’ve noticed about all this technology: she uses it for a purpose. I’ve never seen her mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or Pinterest. She doesn’t pick up her phone just because she’s bored.
Smartphones invite us to use them mindlessly, purposelessly, to alleviate boredom or provide shallow entertainment. It’s all too easy to start scrolling through apps as a form of procrastination, or when there’s nothing better to do. I’ve never seen my mom use her phone that way.
Your teens are watching how you interact with technology. Maybe you don’t even have a smartphone, but they’re still watching the way you use your computer, your tablet, or your TV. Your habits and practices will set the expectations for the rest of the household (it’s hard to tell your teens they spend too much time on their phones if you’re always on yours!). Parents, it starts with you.
We don’t need to “take back our lives” from technology. No, we need to submit them to the Lord Jesus.
Help Them Take Control
It’s a cliché that our smartphones control our lives. From waking to sleeping we live under a tyranny of notifications, media, and ephemeral validation. We’re tied to these little devices for so many reasons.
But we don’t have to be.
It’s imperative that we learn to use our phones as tools—to make them serve us and the glory of God, not to mindlessly serve the purposes of the companies that manufacture them.
First, talk to your teens. It’s so important that you communicate with them directly and provide a Christ-centered paradigm for smartphone use. Teach them to pick up their phones for a purpose, not just because they’re bored. Show them how to avoid the trap of comparison and turning their lives into a product for “likes” on Instagram. Help them pursue deep, Christ-centered relationships that are enhanced—not ruled—by faceless internet communication. And it should go without saying, but educate them on social media safety. Stalkers and trolls are real, and while they’re not hard to avoid, young teens especially need to be aware of basic safety rules.
Before any of us had phones, my dad gave us one of those impromptu parental lectures on not being controlled by our devices. It wasn’t accusational or guilt-driven, just solid wisdom. It still influences the way I use social media and direct messaging.
Second, help them set sensible boundaries. If possible, involve them in the discussion! Help them learn how to set their own boundaries, so when they leave your house they’ll have formed healthy technology practices for themselves.
Boundaries might include not using phones during family time, not sleeping with them, or allowing use only during certain times of day. You might have social-media-specific rules, such as keeping accounts private or (for younger teens) approving new followers. For me, not getting a cell phone at all until I had a job and needed one proved useful. I built my technology habits incrementally—first on computers (which I needed for school and other activities), then a tablet (which connected to Wi-Fi but had no data), until I finally had the versatility of a hand-me-down iPhone that connected to the internet from anywhere—as long as I paid for the data.
The right boundaries and rules will vary widely; what’s right for another family may not be right for yours. It will depend on your teens’ age, maturity level, and your family situation. Pray and seek wisdom about it—and encourage your teens to do the same!
Point Them to Excellent Uses of Phones
Smartphones can be a helpful, edifying, and uplifting addition to the Christian life.
Yes, I’m serious. It’s possible. Don’t just teach your teens how not to use their smartphones—teach them how to use their phones for good. Point them to uses, even specific apps, that will help them thrive in Bible study, Scripture memory, fellowship, and other areas of life. Here are just a few ideas:
- The Bible Memory App for Scripture memorization
- BlueLetterBible (my personal favorite!) for Bible study
- ReadScripture for guided Bible reading
- Khan Academy and Quizlet for school and other learning
- Texting, email, Facetime (and other video calling apps), and Marco Polo for fellowship with other believers (the friends I know I can text to ask for prayer on a hard day are lifesavers)
Even social media is not all bad. When used well, it can help maintain connections with believing friends who live far away or even with family if and when your teen leaves for college.
Point Them to Christ
Teens don’t just need more productivity or better time-management skills. We don’t need to “take back our lives” from technology. No, we need to submit them to the Lord Jesus—every part of them—including our smartphones.
Teach your teens practical methods for taking control of their smartphones. Help them use their phones for good and avoid all the dangers and pitfalls that come with that kind of freedom and access to the world. But most of all, point them to Christ. Teach them to seek him first, to love the Lord their God with their entire being, and to leverage even their technology for this awesome goal.
Katherine Forster is the author of Transformed by Truth: Why and How to Study the Bible for Yourself as a Teen.
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