I’m absolutely pro-technology, and I was one of the lucky ones who grew up in the romantic era of receiving hand-written letters by snail mail and using Britannica Encyclopedia for my English papers. When I was ten, my parents, who were both poor Eastern immigrants working at a laundromat and grocery stand, scraped together enough to buy a Nintendo with Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. I was excited for my first Pentium desktop on my twelfth birthday and my very first cell phone in 1999, a Nokia the size of my face that doubled as a dumbbell.
I bought my first smartphone in 2010, considered late to the party but still just as thrilled to unlock my iPhone with the swipe of a two-year-contract. It’s exciting today to see the first wave of phones that display holograms and the video games you can control with your mind; I’m not pining away with nostalgia for my unplugged childhood. I’m always ready to adjust to the newfangled contraptions of the future. I am not and never will be an alarmist who sneers at new technology.
Yet despite my love for our growing leaps in gadgetry, I have an equal concern for how new tech affects us – especially our children. Tech Culture is moving so fast that it’s difficult to find any longitudinal studies about smartphones and social media on a developing mind. In other words, we don’t know how our current tech is affecting an entire generation of people. We simply don’t know yet.
We constantly live within Cultural Lag, which is the psychological phenomenon described as “the notion that culture takes time to catch up with technological innovations, and that social problems and conflicts are caused by this lag.” And when an entire Western middle-upper class generation has unlimited access to information, there will inevitably be dire consequences.
I have no agenda or bias against tech, at all, but we know that such power can escalate beyond our control.
We need to talk about it.
The solution isn’t necessarily to ban tech from the home, but to have wisdom and conversations in how we approach each device as they come. This isn’t just dialogue about pornography, which is empirically harmful, or distractions, which are socially toxic. It’s about how tech can be safely used and reasonably discussed within today’s family.
Here are four reasons why I believe it’s better to wait to give a smartphone to your child, or to heavily moderate such activity. This isn’t coming from an old-fashioned finger-wagging at “those darn young folks,” and perhaps none of this will be new to you. But hopefully we can examine the seriousness of these decisions as our children enter the next inevitable wave of new technology.
1) Smartphones have a tendency to undermine true intimacy.
I still remember my first apology when I was about seven, face-to-face with my friend and his mother, because I had stolen his two Transformers toys. I also remember my first break-up when I was seventeen, face-to-face, two months into dating who I thought was the love of my life.
Both of these events were hard and humbling. They were also a natural part of growing up. We each go through – even need to go through – apologies and arguments and break-ups. A part of being human is sharing our feelings, both good and bad, within close physical proximity.
A huge problem with smartphones is that they can short-circuit this natural process of face-to-face interaction. When children learn to apologize by pressing buttons, this promotes a dysfunctional anxiety of confrontation that will only worsen with age. It’s too easy to minimize our own wrongdoing by not seeing the hurt we’ve caused. It rigs our friendships into an art form of convenience. We can turn them “off” at any time and avoid the messy work of intimacy.
I’m not against Skype or FaceTime, but even video apps are still too convenient for real conversation. I would go as far to say that just as porn hampers the gritty undertaking of real relationships, smartphones can also shrink life into a game on a screen. It bypasses the necessary discomfort of wrestling through our feelings together. Children, most of all, need to develop this early and frequently so they can feel the weight and gravity of their words.
Solution? At the very least, our relational connections can happen by talking over the phone. Children need to learn to speak with a human voice for tone and context. There’s also a raw, visceral kind of interaction that can’t happen when you edit responses through texting; it needs to be done on our toes, eye to eye. I also understand that long distance requires technology to connect, but whenever possible, our entire physical presence would be best. While text messages and emails are viable ways to communicate, these should be taught as supplementary instead of the normative method to interact.
2) Smartphones distract us from total engagement.
Besides the research that Google search is probably making us dumber, it’s also obvious that smartphones pull us away from engaging with the people around us. Whenever I see a dinner table or a car full of people who are on their phones, I have to wonder why they’re even with each other.
Gabe Lyons, from his book The Next Christians, talks about Kevin Kelly, former senior writer for Wired magazine, who doesn’t use a cell phone, doesn’t own a laptop, and rides his bike for transportation. Gabe writes, “We obviously live in a society full of divided people—or put another way, disembodied human beings. Our attention is distorted, our focus is skewed, and it seems to any casual observer that the days when a one-on-one conversation could be maintained (for more than five minutes) without one of these constant nags interrupting you are long gone.”
Lyons and Kelly conclude that embodying yourself is exactly what God did through His Son Jesus. God embodied Himself to be present with us. One of the most startling truths of Christianity is the Incarnation, in which God chose to fully go through all we go through. By extension, we’re called to fully incarnate all we are in every situation, with every person, with our entire being.
I’m not saying we need to throw away our laptops or to ride our bikes to work. I’m also not saying a terribly new thing here, but our disembodiment has become such a hindrance to communication that even bars are serving mugs that require you to get off your phone. When it comes to children, having an all-in-one device with bottomless entertainment will isolate a child into a self-limited stillness. Games and media are not necessarily wrong, but it is downright rude when you’re only half-engaged with the person directly in front of you.
Solution? Children must learn to prioritize the people around them first. The people who are physically there are the most important people in that moment. You are with the people you are with. Be present, be engaged. Phones down, eye contact, be all there. I’m sure this goes for the adults too, including me.
3) Smartphones have little to no regulation on the amount of influence it holds.
When I was thirteen, I remember bringing two of my friends home for a sleepover. The next day, my mom told me, “I like Sean. I don’t like Kyle.”
We had a long conversation about why she liked Sean and didn’t like Kyle. I was really upset, but we got through it: and I learned that day about the power of influence and the company you keep. As it turned out, Sean was a stand-up guy, and Kyle was expelled from school for being a Nazi skinhead (I’m not kidding).
Children with smartphones have an exponentially wide ring of friends and influences on their screen. This is also true through laptops and other media, but having everyday access in your pocket, out of sight, is impossible to fully regulate and discuss. Children would never have to bring home their buddies from Instagram and Snapchat and Tumblr, so it’s not conducive to those open conversations about influence.
Solution? Short of barging into your child’s phone history, this is a tricky issue to navigate with no simple answers. It requires the very basics of parenting, with both healthy inoculation from bad ideas along with gracious teaching about the good. That demands a surgical finesse without a shrill sledgehammer. It won’t go perfectly and it takes time, but giving awareness to your child is already half the battle.
4) Smartphones often divorce us from the moment by secondhand social media.
There’s been a recent trend in which artists like Dave Chappelle or Jack White have outright banned smartphones from their shows. This isn’t about piracy, but about enjoying the moment as it’s unfolding before us. Their logic is that when we’re too enraptured by recording the moment or posting about it on social media, then we’re only vicariously experiencing it through the validation of others.
Both children and adults often use smartphones to record big events, and so life is being lived secondhand through a device. While adults today might have grown up in a time before this option, our children have a very small gap between firsthand experience and the manic urge to record it for social media. Life is now superimposed with the impulse to grab as many views and “likes” as possible.
This is also why I decided not to record my marriage proposal. I don’t think there’s anything especially wrong with this, but for me, my motive only would’ve been to post it on YouTube and soak in the approval. For once, I didn’t want to suffocate the moment with a filter. There are just some moments I want to keep between me, my God, and the people I love.
Solution? Even though social media might be an entirely different topic, children need to enjoy their earliest moments without the added drive to record it and post it. Some moments are too sacred to be squeezed into a phone. They need to be lived, and alive, in and of themselves.
 Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians, (New York: DoubleDay, 2010) pp.141, 143