Our son wants a smartphone with an Instagram account.
He’s 12. He’s in seventh grade. He wants to be able to text his friends, send pictures, and chat in the afternoons and evenings.
His mom and I say “no.”
We’ve opened an Instagram account on my wife’s phone that he can use to post an occasional picture or, under our supervision, see what his friends are up to during the summer. But we’ve drawn the line at him having a phone at this age and all the social media accounts that go with it.
Crazy thing is, we’re the oddballs. Only a handful of his classmates are without a phone.
I’m not judging the decisions that other parents make, so long as they are informed and involved in their children’s lives. Every child is different. Parents can use discernment and come to different conclusions on this matter. I am, however, confident that we’re making the right decision for our families.
Naturally, our son has asked the question several times in several ways: Why not, Dad? Why not, Mom?
The easy answer would be: “There’s bad stuff on the internet and we don’t want you to access it.” We could talk about sexting and pornography and all the potential dangers of being online. But I know there are certain filters and barriers that impede that deluge of filth. Besides, the potential for future, sexual temptation is not our greatest concern anyway.
No, the real reason why our son doesn’t have a phone is because we think his middle-school years will be better spent without one. The answer I’ve given, over and over again, is this: I want you to be free from middle school drama when you’re at home.
Of course, our son thinks the phone represents a new rung on the ladder, the next step toward the freedom of adulthood. We think the phone, at his age, is a step down into slavery. It traps kids, just like it can trap adults, into the social game of likes and comments and never-ending comparisons.
James K. A. Smith describes the scene for an adolescent, and it’s one that virtually any adult could read him or herself into:
“The teenager at home does not escape the game of self-consciousness; instead, she is constantly aware of being on display—and she is regularly aware of the exhibitions of others. Her Twitter feed incessantly updates her about all of the exciting, hip things she is not doing with the ‘popular’ girls; her Facebook pings nonstop with photos that highlight how boring her homebound existence is. And so she is compelled to constantly be ‘on,’ to be ‘updating’ and ‘checking in.’ The competition for coolness never stops. She is constantly aware of herself—and thus unable to lose herself in the pleasures of solitude: burrowing into a novel, pouring herself out in a journal, playing with fanciful forms in a sketch pad. . . . Every space is a kind of visual echo chamber. We are no longer seen doing something; we’re doing something to be seen.”
There’s nothing wrong or immoral in the content the teenager in the above paragraph may access. But something still isn’t right about the whole scene.
Many Christian parents are rightly concerned about the content that their kids may access on the phone. But it’s not just the content that shapes us. It’s the entire device and how it operates, and the assumptions about our world that are smuggled in with it. The smartphone has apps tailored around one’s own desires, so that the phone says, all day every day, “The world revolves around you.”
“Tools want to be used this way and not that. My phone “wants” my wants to head in a certain direction. My phone trains me to expect instant satisfaction of my infinite desires. . . . Our world is jigged by phones, computers, and tablets toward self-absorption and roving, inattentive consumption. My phone turns my self into a cellph.”
This is a big deal. It’s why I devoted the first chapter of This Is Your Time to the smartphone (“Your Phone Is a Myth-Teller”) and how we can use this newly invented tool faithfully.
Social media promises to do two things simultaneously: resolve the human longing to “be known” and the human longing to be “in the know.” The thirst for knowledge goes back to the Garden of Eden. We want to be “in the know,” and we want to “be known and loved.”
In the book, I call this “double thirst”—when you drink something that temporarily quenches your need for water, but that “something” has an ingredient that creates in you a greater thirstiness.
When you go to the phone, believing the myth that it can quench your thirst for knowledge, you’re inundated with information that makes you feel insignificant in the bigger scheme of things. That’s when the second longing kicks in, the desire to be known. Now you go to your phone in order to put yourself out there, to post selfies and comments because being present online helps you fight the feeling that you are insignificant.
Then, there’s a deeper aspect to all this. We recreate ourselves online because we worry that if we were truly known, we would not be loved.
It will be our generation’s task to chart the way forward in what faithful use of the smartphone will be. How does the gospel shape our smartphone habits? That’s an important question, and it’s why I’ve written a chapter on this subject, and why I’m heartened to see articles in Comment as well as a new book by Tony Reinke pressing us into deeper reflection on our habits.
For now, the simple “no” is best for our son. But this discussion should lead us as parents, who are too often glued to our phones, to contemplate what we’re saying “yes” to.