A few weeks back my church hosted a screening of the film, Screenagers. Afterwards I was part of a panel that helped parents process the movie plus answer questions about social media use in the home.
The crux of the entire documentary was this exchange between the mom and her teenage daughter:
Mom: “How can you convince me to get a smartphone?”
Daughter: “I’d look cool.”
When they added this exchange into the film they knew they’d get a reaction from parents. Parents who are likely to sit down and watch a movie about parental concerns about smartphones were guaranteed to laugh at that line.
And they did. When this exchange happened in a church with a couple hundred parents it was clearly a laugh line.
But the daughter’s honest answer wasn’t funny. She didn’t think she was telling a joke.
The film set it up so you, the adult, would look down from your ivory tower and snort and the wee child’s desire for a smartphone.
“Oh you poor little girl… you don’t need a smartphone to look cool… we adults know that.”
Now, I don’t think the intent of the movie was to alienate teenagers. Though this exchange did that.
I think the intent was to help parents think about and process the “why” questions, something I’m in favor of.
And, in the end, [spoiler alert] the film resolves when the parents realize their insane levels of control are the root of the conflict between parent and teenage child about her phone.
Yet this exchange, “Convince me why I should let you have a smartphone” gets to the core, and ancient, disconnect between parents of teenagers and teenagers.
So, should I get my kid a smartphone?
Here are a few factors to consider.
- Family functionality. The reason most parents ultimately justify giving their tween/teenager a phone has to do with functional need. Do you need to arrange pick-up/drop-offs, do you need to have them text you when they arrive at a friends house, does your family do a lot of group chat, or send updates to far away family members? Sure, they could survive without the phone for these things but them having one would sure make these things easier.
- Teach responsibility. Owning a smartphone comes with responsibilities. They have to take care of it so it doesn’t break or get wet. They have to keep it charged. They have to use it responsibly, at the right times, in a way that won’t get them in trouble. A smartphone can be a great way to teach responsibility. When my daughter went to 7th grade I got my daughter an iPhone and told her, “This is my phone, not yours. I pay the bill, I bought it, it’s mine… You can use it but you have to use it responsibly. If you can take care of it and use it in the right way, it’ll be yours.” Since it’s something they want really bad it’s a great way to teach responsibility.
- Fostering healthy habits. Something I’m really worried about with parents of teenagers, particularly affluent suburban parents of teenagers, is infantilization of their children. Literally, there is something going on where they want to make every decision for them and make it impossible for them to do anything wrong… and consequently there are 16 year olds virtually in diapers. One reason I think it’s a good idea to have a smartphone early, say 5th, 6th, or 7th grade, is that you’ve got some time to help create healthy habits before they go off to college. Are they putting that phone away at night? Are you creating spaces and times in your day where everyone puts away their devices? Are they able to manage doing homework without messaging friends? Ideally, you want them to have these skills mastered by the time they hit 9th and 10th grade. Too many parents foster unhealthy technology habits unwittingly. (See Tuning In.)
- Dealing with danger. Related to that, and every parents worst fears, have to do with danger. “Is my kid going to get bullied? Are they going to look at porn? Are they going to get in trouble for sexting? Is some sex offender going to stalk them?” These are real world fears because in some ways these are all possibilities. But, whether or not you think you signed up for it, you signed up to teach your teenage children about these things when you became a parent. And let me just prepare you for this… almost all teenagers have looked at porn. So instead of talking about ways to prevent that from happening, just have the conversation with them.
- Can you afford it? I’ll be transparent. The reason our 13 year old doesn’t have a smartphone right now is that I can’t get over how much it costs! It’s insane. That said, I think an important factor when asking this question is simply if it’s affordable for your family. If it isn’t be honest… “We just can’t afford another phone, here’s what we can afford.” Or “If you want to have the latest iPhone, that’s great, you’ll need to contribute $30 a month to the bill somehow.” That said, in my work in the developing world lots of teenagers… even those in the poorest of circumstances… have smartphones. It’s a factor, but a factor you can probably cope with.
If you’re interested in more I co-authored A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Social Media which dives into six healthy habits of social media in the home. And my new book, Tuning In, is for Christians who are interested in learning how to better live out their faith through technology like smartphones and social media.