Smartphones (Probably) Aren’t Killing Your Kid

“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

That’s quite the headline. And it’s a good article in The Atlantic that you should read. I’m looking forward to reading the author’s (Jean M. Twenge) forthcoming book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us if for no other reason than I’m a sucker for a title that takes up three lines on a page.

The argument is simple, though – since 2007, when the iPhone was introduced, teen suicide rates have gone up. Teen social activity has gone down. The key moment, she argues, occurred in 2012 – the year American smartphone usage surpassed 50%.

There is a lot in the article – it’s the cover story of the September issue of The Atlantic. It’s well researched. Other people have questioned her research methods and asked some questions that, at least in the article, she glossed over. Those are valid concerns, but I’ll let other people ask those questions. My primary concern is this: what is our response as Christians? Most of the reaction I’ve seen as this article has gone viral (and there’s a certain irony that shouldn’t be lost on us that an article about how our smartphones are killing us has gone viral) has been panic. Outrage bloggers have picked it up and run with it. People who were already anti-kids having smartphones were vindicated, and people who generally praise technological advances have been relatively silent (this is purely anecdotal).

The most consistent questions I seem to get asked as a student pastor have to do with technology. What’s the youth group’s technology policy? At what age should I give my kid a phone? We’re concerned our kids spend too much time on their phones – what do we do? The question behind the questions, I think, is “how in the world do we disciple our kids in this ever complicated digital age?” And I don’t intend for this to be a defense of all things technological. We shape our technology, and our technology shapes us. There’s no doubt about that.

The good news is that while smartphones make the issue a bit more complicated, it’s actually not a new issue at all. The problem with an article like this, and Twenge may go into more detail in her book than the Atlantic article allowed her to, is that it seems to ignore a bunch of other factors. Yes, 2012 may be the moment American smartphone usage surpassed 50%, but what are some other factors? What’s happening in the economy? What’s happening in our schools? Are there any trends besides, or maybe in addition to, smartphones that might be influencing our kids? What do these trends – loneliness, suicide rates, etc. look like in other age groups? And, at least for Christian parents, there’s a glaring angle missing.

John Calvin called our hearts “idol factories.” And while smartphones themselves may be idols, I think the real heart of the issue so to speak is the access our smartphones give us to our idols. And that’s not just for our teens! It’s true of every age group. Our deepest desires are still to be fully known and fully loved. Smartphones haven’t changed that. They may have exacerbated it, but they haven’t changed it, and the good news is that our idols, not our smartphones, are killing us.

It’s good news because it’s an age old problem, with a tried and tested solution. It’s not an easy solution, nor is it necessarily an efficient one, but the answer is being parents. Deuteronomy 6 establishes our responsibility to our kids – teach God’s commands to our children. Talk of them when we sit at home, when we walk by the way, when we lie down, and when we rise. Bind them as signs on our hands and write them on the doorposts of our home. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Our phones can give us opportunities to do just that, from the things we read to the ways we interact with people.

Our responses are almost always extreme. We see things happening and we either run away from them completely or dive in without looking. Neither one of these are particularly healthy. As parents, the responsibility is to help disciple our kids to understand how to glorify God in an increasingly digital world. That requires a lot of things – discernment and grace being among the most important. In 1 Chronicles 12, we learn of the men of Issachar – men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do. They understood the world they lived in. They knew God and the promises He had made to His people. And they knew what Israel should do in light of these things.

That’s our call as parents, pastors, siblings, friends…whatever our role may be. Understand the times. Understand your kids. Remember the promises of God, and remember the things He has told us. We are created in His image, and among the biggest implications of that is we are made for relationships. Karl Barth said Christians should hold a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, but to always interpret the newspaper through what we read in the bible. This is as true as it has ever been!

But it’s also a call to grace. We have to admit that we don’t fully understand this world – it changed so drastically and so rapidly total understanding would be nearly impossible. We also have to understand that our kids don’t know any different – I’m in the generation that saw the Internet first start to be as widely accessible as it is, and I remember the awful dial-up modem sound, but I also hardly remember the pre-online world. People just a few years older than me do, and people just a few years younger than me don’t remember it at all. It changed (or at least seemed to) that quickly, and we barely had time to understand how this technology was shaping us. So we have to be gracious with ourselves, to admit what we don’t know and to admit when we’re wrong, and we have to be gracious with our kids. Yes, they will at times seem like entitled brats when it comes to phones and tablets and whatever else, but we’re all entitled brats. That’s why sanctification is as beautiful as it is – as entitled brat adults raise entitled brat kids, Jesus is working through it and making us a little less entitled and a little less…brattish?

And so we come back to the question – how do we disciple our kids in the digital age? With discernment. With grace. Lots of grace. Let us see the good things about our kids, and let us see the ways phones enhance those and help our kids thrive. Let us understand, at the same time, their sinful nature and be honest about the ways phones tempt them. Let us take seriously the God given positions of authority and humbly pursue the most Christ honoring ways of exercising those. There will be times when that means taking phones. Guidelines will have to be set and enforced. There will be levels of maturity that will be expected. These are for our good and theirs, but we have to remember that kids don’t need friends in the digital world, they need guides. If we’re giving our kids smartphones and then sending them out into the world saying “good luck,” we’ve already lost the battle, and you don’t need an Atlantic piece or a research project to tell you that.

And read! Read a lot. There are a lot of great Christian authors studying this stuff, and they’re writing really good books about it. Here are some I would suggest starting with:

The Next Story, Tim Challies
The Tech Wise Family, Andy Crouch
12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Tony Reinke

The reality is we live in a world where smartphones exist, and they’re only going to get smarter. If we’re not preparing our kids for that, someone else is.

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