Kids between the ages of 6 and 23 fall into a generation now getting labeled Post-Millennial or iGen. Sometimes they are simply called ‘Screenagers’. The stats are in: the iGeneration is now the loneliest generation in America, even surpassing senior citizens. The very assumption that technology connects us should be reexamined because it appears what’s happened is that it has rendered our need for others and for community unnecessary. When someone feels useless, it’s no wonder they feel lonely. The smartphone becomes a “painkiller”, promising to solve loneliness, but in reality, it is masking pain.
So how do we guide our pre-teens and teenagers in this digital age? This is something I face as a Middle School Principal on a weekly basis, as I counsel students and help them navigate God’s best for them, even online. Here are some practical suggestions that I have gleaned from various sources that I hope are helpful to you:
1. Delay social media as long as possible. Social media is where teens look for life, and it’s what can cost them their lives. We must help our kids see this paradox. Social media, unwisely abused, will cost them something precious.
2. Delay smartphones as long as possible. Once you introduce your child to a mobile-connected smartphone, with texting and apps like Instagram and Snapchat, parental controls are virtually futile. 47% of teens use Snapchat, a premiere app to send and receive expiring images and “throwaway selfies.” In the smartphone age, sexting has become “normative” to the teen years. These are potent devices. Resist the pressure to give your kid one.
3. For all ages and all devices: Keep screens out of bedrooms. Or, at the very least for 12 hours, like from between 8pm to 8am. Make a set rule here. No TVs, gaming devices, tablets, laptops, or phones. Break off the endless social demands. Break gaming addictions. Preserve sleep patterns. Make sure all devices are charged overnight in one place, not in a child’s room. A simple charging station in mom and dad’s room is a good solution.
4. Stairstep technology over the years. On paper draw a big box. On the top-left side, write age 0, and on the top-right side, write age 18. Left to right, this is your child’s first 18 years with technology. Now, draw stairs diagonally from the bottom-left to the top-right. Early on, maybe age 5-7, you might introduce a tablet with coloring and educational games. Then you introduce a tablet with educational videos, maybe age 6-8. Then around age 10, introduce a family computer in the living room. Around age 12 might be a good time for kids to get a flip phone. This is also a good time to allow Google searches for school research. Maybe around 13-14 you could introduce Instagram or messenger apps to connect with a few select friends, from the home computer. Finally, the smartphone — the final step up. Maybe age 16 or 17, but 18 is even better.
5. Write a smartphone contract. When you move to the smartphone, write a contract of expected behaviors, curfews, and family expectations that come along with the phone. Have your child share their login info. For parents who made the mistake of introducing a smartphone too soon, as well, it’s never too late to set in place a phone contract.
6. Re-center parenting on the affections. Smartphones do not invent new sins; they simply amplify every temptation of life. Old temptations are given new levels of attraction and addiction and accessibility. We are waging an all-out war for the affections of our teenagers. Parenting has always been a war for our kids’ affections, but the digital age exposes our parental laziness more quickly.
7. Take up digital discipleship. It is not enough to isolate a handful of Proverbs and scatter them like general seeds of wise counsel. Discipling teens in the digital age requires Scripture planted and cultivated in all of the heart. Our parental passivity has been exposed in the digital age. Once we as parents are humble to self-criticize our own smartphone abuse, then we can turn and help our kids, too. The digital age is scary and exhausting, but it opens up phenomenal new opportunities to disciple teens.
8. Establish phone free zones. Make the dinner table and car rides together phone-free zones. Unhurried time together, decompressing from the day, is fruitful. It also gives kids a break from the relentless noise of social media.
Lastly, I recommend that parents check out the movie made by Kirk Cameron, called Connect. This is a great resource for every parent, but especially Middle School Parents. Connect Movie
I am praying for you all as you guide your kids. May the Lord give us His perfect wisdom and discernment as we walk this path together.