My children are 5 years apart in school and as a result, their high school experiences did not overlap. In just that brief period between them, cell phone usage (and, sadly, their necessity now for some school work) has dramatically changed. How can Christian parents navigate this rapidly changing environment? How can we put the brakes on what feels like a runaway train? Here I will explore some answers to common questions Christian parents have about kids and cell phones.
But first, let’s review some information on childhood brain development.
Childhood brain development
You likely already know all about the extreme amount of growth and transformation that happens in a child’s brain. Throughout childhood (which, brain-speaking, is up until the age of about 24), the brain is rapidly changing as it matures, assimilates new information, and creates neuropathways. The brain has plasticity and changes throughout the life span, but the most intense growth happens when we are young.
Have your ever asked your child, “What were you thinking?” when they engaged in a particular risky or dangerous behavior? I can answer that for you. They weren’t. At least not in the way that you think. Children do not have easy access to the parts of their brains that say, “Hold on. Let’s think this through a second.” They have an idea and they do it. (Or if you have a particularly anxious kid, they don’t. But it’s not executive functioning holding them back. It’s fear.)
We also know from research that cell phone usage increases dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurochemical responsible for motivation, pleasure and even movement. Not surprisingly, kids’ developing brains are highly sensitive to the effects of dopamine. Cell phone usage provides a flood of this feel-good neurochemical and the association between using a phone and feeling good gets imprinted pretty quickly ensuring they will return for more.
The problem is that this flood of dopamine has a negative effect. As the brain tries to cope with the overload, it reduces the number of dopamine receptors and decreases the level of serotonin (our “happiness” brain chemical). So what your child is left with is a drive to do something that used to be pleasurable but doesn’t have the same impact, fueling the drive for the ever-elusive “high.”
When should my child get a phone?
There is no hard and fast rule to answer that question. I know it’s kind of wishy-washy to say “it depends,” but it does.
You know your child better than anyone. You know if your child is risk-seeking or risk-averse. You also know if your child is prone to deception or sticks to the truth. You know if your child is easily influenced or if he is willing to go against the grain. You also know if your child becomes fixated on enjoyable things or if he can easily transition from one thing to another.
All of this information can help inform your decision about when you should allow your child to have a cell phone. It is an individual decision that requires prayer and, honestly, listening to your gut. It can be hard to hear wisdom through all of the begging, but it’s important that the decision be just that: a decision, not something that you no longer have the energy to fight off.
Generally, I like to tell parents that there is no necessity for a cell phone unless your child is involved with something that requires him to be alone without a trusted adult available. This is likely when you are comfortable with your child being with friends without adult supervision or when he or she starts to drive. Prior to that, it may be a convenience, but it is not a necessity- despite what your child says.
Should I restrict my kids’ cell phone usage?
Yes you should. You should restrict it in terms of time spent on it and what kind of time is spent on it. Restrictions can come from two sources – externally (you) or internally (the phone itself).
At the time of this writing, Android phones allow for much more robust monitoring over iPhones. Many parental controls such as Qustodio and Norton work well with Android but have limited functionality with iPhones. iPhones have their own internal monitoring capabilities, but savvy kids can find their way around them.
Some external restrictions you can set include:
- no phones at the table (which is a time of connection and conversation)
- no phones in the bedroom (which is a place for rest an relaxation)
- no phones after ______ p.m. (which allows the brain to come off of the dopamine “high” before bed)
- no phone use before homework is completed (which allows for prioritization and delay of gratification)
- no sharing of personal identifying information online
- no added apps without permission (see below)
- no online chats with people unknown in your child’s “real world”
Should I monitor what they are doing?
When you buy your child a phone and pay for the service, it is still your phone. They may be allowed to use it but it is not theirs in the sense their favorite t-shirt is theirs. I realize this is controversial, but establishing this dynamic from the beginning allows you to protect your child when, developmentally, we know that their brains cannot protect them from themselves.
You should also know your child’s passcode and regularly check to make sure it has not changed. Your child should know that you will make “spot checks” if you have reason to be concerned for their emotional or physical safety. This can be established from the beginning – the moment you hand them the phone. Checking their phone because you are “curious” is not the same a checking because you are concerned. Their trust in you hinges on you knowing the difference.
What apps should I let my child have access to?
You can set the phone up so that your child is unable to add apps without your permission. I would suggest you do this, or create a rule (that you enforce) that they need to check with you before adding anything.
Apps to avoid include: Tiktok, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Tinder and YouTube. Yes. YouTube. These platforms are predatory. They want your child to log on and stay logged on. They contain algorithms designed for just that. YouTube can be educational, but it can also be a dangerous vortex of information and trends and can create a distorted view of reality if used heavily.
Your child needs the phone for the basics: texting, email, assignments and grades, photos, and phone calls. Anything else is extra.
Have open discussions about what apps your child wants to use, hear what he has to say, read up on the app online, pray about it, and share your decision. These discussions can be re-visited as your child matures, shows greater impulse control, and personal responsibility.
What are the pros and cons of my child having a cell phone?
It is true that giving your child a phone gives you peace of mind. With a click of an app, you can instantly see where he or she is at all times. You can reach them for last minute changes, delays or emergencies. It allows them to have access to you if they need anything. As a parent of a child who lives across the country, I am very thankful for them.
But phones have their downsides too (besides all the ones listed above).
1) They create disconnect. The next time your family is all together, notice how the phone usage stunts the conversation or blocks a feeling of connection.
2) Phones also create an illusion of an internal, private world. As Christians, we know that God is omnipotent. He is everywhere. The private nature of our phone can cause us to forget this fact as it becomes “our little secret”- a private life within our life.
3) Phones create conflict. If your child is driving you crazy now begging for a phone, don’t think that all the turmoil will go away once you give him one. It will just morph into a different type of conflict. You will be challenged on all the rules listed above. You will have to enforce consequences when the rules are broken. You will have to be the “bad” guy for saying “no.” Again.
As Christian parents, we know that peace in the home is not our ultimate goal. It’s transformation. And sometimes that comes with a conflictual price tag. But character matters and the molding and shaping that it takes to develop it can be uncomfortable. But that’s okay.
Discussions about cell phones are not meant to be “one and done.” You will likely need to re-visit the discussion often. Be open and listen to your child about their desires regarding phone usage. As they grow and change, your rules and expectations will too.
It’s important to put blinders on. There are families (even within the Christian community) with wildly varying rules and expectations about cell phones and kids. This is for you, your spouse and God to decide.
If you are at the precipice of handing your child a phone, be sure that you take the time to pray and prepare. You will likely make mistakes. You may find it hard to maintain the level of monitoring your child needs. You may struggle with phone over-use yourself. All of these things make it a challenge. But you do not do it alone, God is with you and He has all the wisdom you need to parent the children He gave you.