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When Should My Child Get a Smartphone? (START HERE, #4)

Every parent is likely to face the question: “Can I get a smartphone?” As a parent there is a double-sided fear: I don’t want to say no out of reflex, because I’m old and don’t understand, and I don’t want to say yes out of guilt and give my child something dangerous or unhealthful. What can we do? Today we’ll talk through the five cautions to understand with a smartphone, the age our children should get a smartphone, and how we can support healthy tech choices along the way.

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Hello everyone, and welcome to the Gospel Tech podcast. My name is Nathan Sutherland, and this podcast is dedicated to helping families love God and use tech. Today, we are continuing our conversation about how can we use tech well, how do we raise up kids who love God and use tech? And it’s called the Start Here series. This is the idea that we are going to be talking about all of the most important topics in kind of their most condensed form. So the first one was, how do we know if tech is healthy? It was the tool, Drool Tech, and then a reset. Then we went into which tech should we use was our conversation last week. And yeah, no, there was one more in between that I’m forgetting off the top of my head. Sorry. Oh, building hedges. There it is. Haha. And then talking about which tech should we use? Is it safe, family appropriate, etc? So you can check that one out. And today, we are going to be answering the question, when should my kid get a smartphone?

It’s one of the questions I get the most, either from young people, “Hey, can I get a smartphone yet? How could I convince my parents to get me a smartphone?” There’s an answer for that, by the way. And then the parent side of like, “Hey, how can I basically never have to give my child a smartphone?” When people come to me, they either want one of two answers. They’re like, “Hey, when should a child get a smartphone?” And it’s already loaded with tell me that it’s already, and that I should have either given one right now or I should already have one, or tell me that I never ever have to do this. And unfortunately I’m on neither of those. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’ve got a number of, five, but specific things I’m going to talk to you about for how do we make this decision on when should my child get a smartphone?

By the way, young people, if you really want a smartphone, the best answer is prove to your parents that your smartphone improves your reset. So go back to the first one and listen to the tool drool tech, and then the reset part, and convince them these are the five areas, my relationships and responsibilities, emotion, sleep, enjoyment, time. A smartphone is going to help me in all five areas, and it will not impede any of these five areas. You can show them that you’re good to go. And if they’re still reticent and they’re like, “I don’t know. You could just do that with paper,” then show them how your smartphone will produce fruit of the spirit.

In fact, I would just show them three. Show them… So you have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, right? You’ve got the whole list. But why don’t you just prove them how it’s going to help you be more loving, more patient, and more self-controlled? You show them those three fruit of this is what God does in us when he moves in and lives from us, he lives in our hearts living out our lives when our lives are no longer in renewed creations, what happens? Good fruit. And it’s going to improve your reset, which it will inevitably… The more you look like Jesus, the more your reset improves. Jesus had awesome relationships and he was incredible with his responsibilities. In fact, he only did what his father told him to do. So that’s awesome. Kids, that’s free. That wasn’t today’s talk, but that’s the idea. If you are a young person who wants a smartphone, that’s it.

If you look at the smartphone and go, “Yeah, but how am I supposed to convince them of that?” Exactly. That is what you need to process. I do not want your parents, when you ask them for something good, “Mom or dad, if you love me, give me this thing that I want,” and they’re like, “I love you and I love giving you things you want, but let’s make sure this thing is actually good for you because we love you.” So if you ask for an egg, I don’t want to hand you a scorpion. I want to hand you something that is actually helpful and nutritious and beneficial for your life.

Smartphones, when should your child get one? Well, before I jump into the actual age… There is an age, I believe, but let’s start with this. Five cautions. Five cautions comes from what a smartphone is. We have to understand what we’re talking about before we can set an age. If I just threw out an age, people will be like, “Oh, he’s way too old, way too young,” whatever. We’ll just start to argue with the word that I said, the number, but let’s make sure we have the right conversation. First, smartphones are app delivery systems. This is really important. Because if you don’t understand what the thing’s meant to do, you might be confused by what it ends up doing. If you think this is a way simply for your child to connect with friends, that’s not its goal. Get them a walkie-talkie, let them use your phone.

But if you want them to have a smartphone, these things are built to deliver apps. That is how they make their money. Apple’s iPhone app store, Apple gets a third of the money that comes from transactions in that. The reason that’s a big deal is a single game, if you were to take something like Fortnite, Fortnite is free to play so you can download it for free, but they make more than $5 billion a year from transactions that happen on that app in that game. Well, that means that Apple is getting a third of that if it was downloaded on an iPhone. And by the way, the iPhone is cross-platform, which is something we’ll get to in a minute, but a kid on an iPhone could play with someone on an Xbox. So keep that in mind. This is big money that we’re talking about here, and we want to make sure that our children are aware of that as well.

So the first thing is it’s app delivery. It’s not really for making phone calls. It’s not really for doing any particular type of hard work. It’s for delivering apps. Sometimes that helps us do hard work. Most of those are what we’d call drool tech or entertainment tech. They’re designed to help us consume more effectively. And it’s fine to use those as long as we know what we’re doing. That’s the first thing. Second thing is we need to know that the app that most kids are saying, “Mom or dad, I want a smartphone,” what they usually mean is, “Mom or dad, I want social media.” And social media right now is a minefield for developing brains. There’s a number of reasons for this, but we will get maybe into that in just a moment. But to run through this, when I say a minefield, that doesn’t mean I don’t like.

It means that the research is in, and there is a causal link between the use of social media and a decline in mental health for developing brains specifically. We’re talking teens. It’s not great for adults, but one, we can notice. So we’re like, oh, I feel this making me more anxious or sad or whatever. But young people actually we’re seeing a decline in their mental health, meaning they start using it, and at two hours a day, this is actually just for drool tech in general, but social media is included in that, the likelihood of suicidal ideation and depression increases more than 20% at two hours. At five hours a day, it’s over 60% more likely to experience those. And the average teen right now is using eight and a half hours a day of drool tech. So I’m giving you this thing that’s meant to deliver these distracting apps, and the one you’re asking me for has a causal link with the decline in mental health.

So I’m getting that from Jonathan Haidt and Gene Twenge who are currently the leaders, in the United States at least, a New York University professor and a San Diego State University professor writing about, man, we have the research. It’s in a giant 300 page Google Doc. You can see it. It’s all going back to, yes, the release of social media in the late 2008, 2000 tens, but really at 2012 when there were some major changes in the social media industry and they started making the individual. It was no longer about connecting. It was about leveraging the individual surveillance capitalism, selling data, selling connections, selling time on screen. And now keeping your attention is worth money. And that is where the shift begins, and it seems to impact youth the worst. So that’s the first. Vivek Murthy is the US surgeon general. Twice last year in 2023, he came out with official statements, not just as a dad or an American citizen, but as the US surgeon general, saying 13 is too early to have a smartphone, or excuse me, to be on social media.

But if the smartphone’s about getting to social media, that needs to be a conversation piece. So the US surgeon general says 13 is too early. The kids are too young. They’re not ready. The research is telling us that. And then he said, personally, “It’s too early for my kids.” And he also has those feelings. But in his formal position for the United States, he stated that… And there was a CDC study last year that came out, I want to say it was February, 2023, maybe March, but it came out and showed that three and five teenage girls in the United States experienced prolonged bouts of sadness and loneliness in the prior year, three and five, 60%. The good number was boys, and they’re one in three. So when your good number is 33% of a chunk of your teenage population is struggling with mental health, they’re struggling to feel hope and purpose, you feel prolonged bouts of sadness and loneliness, that’s not what we want for our kids.

And if we can point it back to a single technological device, we need to know that when that thing is delivered most often. Most kids use social media through a smartphone. 90% of kids are on internet every single day, and a majority of those are accessing it through smartphones. So we just need to be mindful of that. Social media is what your child’s asking for. And for many young people, it is not a helpful place for them to be. I mentioned, before I went into the research side, some of the reasons why. We don’t know a singular cause, so what we can show is if you… And in fact, actually at the time of this recording, PISA, P-I-S-A, I’m not going to remember what it all stands for, but it’s the international test for how students do in learning academically, just how are students doing in the classroom compared to their peers in other countries around the world, well, we are seeing a marked decline, not because of COVID, actually starting again with the smartphone.

And it is showing, along with secondary research going all the way back to 2012, 2014, continuing to ’15, ’17, 2022, that having a smartphone in the classroom hurts learning, that smartphones are not only delivering unhelpful apps, they’re not only distracting our children, not only causing a decline in mental health, but we can show that removing a smartphone from a learning environment enhances emotional well-being relationships and academic success. So the reason I mentioned that is, all right, we know the smartphone is implicit in this, or complicit at least, we don’t exactly know why. It has something to do with the age of the kid. This isn’t happening in workplaces. We’re not seeing massive declines in workplace health because people have smartphones on them.

We know it has something to do with the mediums that they’re engaging, so TikTok and Snapchat. That has to do with the pace at which they’re engaging information. Average video on TikTok is something like 34 seconds. Average viewing time in a day is 90 minutes. You’re viewing in the range of 170, 180 videos, and they’re topics. So not only are they fast, but they are what Neil Postman would call machine-gunning with scraps that you just are getting hit with sports and friends and kittens and history lessons and fun science and self-harm and pornography and depression, wars around the world, first-person accounts from those people in those wars, dis and misinformation. All of that is coming in no particular order. It’s just one bit after another. And then your child, who might be 10 or 14 or 17, who may not have the context or the emotional health to explain, man, I saw this thing in between my favorite soccer team and my favorite cat video was this video of depression or these really hard topics or the situation happening in war, and I don’t know how to process it.

In fact, they may not even remember they saw it, if it’s like you and I, right? Sometimes you’ll watch something on social media rapidly, and then turn away and be like, well, I feel vaguely anxious. We know it has something to do with that. It has something to do with their orbital frontal cortex. The part of the brain that helps them inhibit behaviors doesn’t exist yet, and so they’re running into content and making decisions that maybe they would otherwise not make. All of this. It impacts their sleep then, which impacts their mental health. So all of that is tied in, and it comes back to it’s an app delivery system for social media and we need to be mindful of that. All right. Then we need to know that strangers and bullies exist online, and you are more likely to run into them if you’re online through… A smartphone is the number one way, as I mentioned, kids go online. So if you’re online, you’re more likely to run into unsafe strangers and to bullies, just statistically. There’s more of them there than there are down the street.

Also worth noting, there’s a study, I want to say it was 2016, 2015 that said… It was brought up in an argument for technology, but the point stands for itself. They were saying children should be in these spaces and parents shouldn’t be afraid because only 9% of kids who go on into online spaces are approached by an adult in a sexual manner. Only 9%. So whatever that is for you, but 1/11th of the children on the internet. And there’s 70 million children in the US, and 90% of them go online, so just take 9% of that, and that’s the number of kids in a given year who are approached by an adult. If I told you that only 9% of kids who play a sport or go to school or enter this type of building will be approached by an adult in that way, we would shut that down immediately.

So it’s harder because it’s the internet. It’s very difficult to manage, and the companies that are providing it or are providing access to it aren’t providing the internet, right? So it’s like, “Oh, it’s not us. We’re just the doorkeepers. Those are the people with the problem.” I get it, but no one’s taking care of it right now, and we could do better. So do know that that is a real thing. The internet is accessed by kids most often through smartphones. It shouldn’t surprise us then that pornography is also most often accessed by teens through smartphones. If you give your child a smartphone, make sure you can say the word pornography to them while making eye contact and that you have some kind of accountability built in. Finally, video games. Just know that your smartphone is a cross-platform gaming device, meaning it’s the exact same game of Fortnite, it’s the exact same game of Minecraft.

It can be played here and on the PC and on your console. It’s same game. It’s not Centipede. It’s not that. TI-83 calculator Doom that used to play grown up. This is full gaming platform. You can buy third-party controllers and it basically turns into a switch. You can port games onto it that aren’t even meant for it. So people play Overwatch on their smartphone because they don’t have the computer that can run it. But their phone is capable of doing it, so they just put it on that device and they can play it that way. So if you don’t know what any of that is, just know it’s a gaming platform. And if your kid’s into games, your kid knows that. So just make sure that you have rules and conversations and loving boundaries set up to protect your child who might love these things and have them on him or her all the time now.

And that’s going to be an important conversational piece for safety. All right, so then it comes to how old, well, it’s going to have to be past 13. I’m not going to argue with the US surgeon general, who, by the way, the document he produces is fabulous on that, lots of research if you want to dig into more of what’s happening in the brain, what’s happening emotionally, what do we now know is happening because of the introduction of social media. And specifically, his is the mental health decline of young people. That’s the second report he put out last year. But 15 is the age that I encourage parents to look at, and I say 15 only if your child is asking for it. So if your child’s starting to play sports and like, “Hey, sometimes we have a delay with pickup or the sport changes. My child needs to be able to reach out to me,” cool, that’s great.

I actually just saw Chris McKenna with Protect Young Eyes this week was writing about this, and a lot of parents push back and go, “Well, my child’s in a public school and he or she needs to be able to reach out to me if there’s an active shooting. If there’s something dangerous happening at school, I need to know.” And while I totally understand the humanity of that, and I have three kids that are out of school and I absolutely want to know, two things. One, what all of the professionals are saying and what Chris McKenna highlights from the professionals is the statement that your child needs to be listened to their teacher. Your child needs to be staying safe, not trying to reach out to you. And one, filling up some of the cell waves that are needed by first responders. So your child needs to be focused.

And two, every loving parent upon hearing that message or receiving that is going to be getting to that school, and that is the last thing that needs to happen, both on the first responder side and for your personal safety. First responders cannot be thinking about potentially armed parents and someone who’s being unsafe in that building. That’s not a fair thing to ask of people who are trying to keep our kids safe. So while that argument exists, and I understand the humanity behind it, it’s very real, please know that that is not grounded in what we actually want for our children, which is for them to be safe. Listen to the people prepared to keep them safe and to get out of there alive. So I know we want them to have it for that, but that’s not a reason we’re going to use right now.

However, sports, life, multiple pickups, the logistics of siblings versus parents versus other parent versus family friend, I get it. You want that. We can go with a really dumb phone and work our way up. Or if we’re older than 15, we can get a real smartphone. If it comes to sports, some people have eighth grade kids, so you’re 14, but this kid’s a stud and needs to have a social media account, great. Just do it through your phone. Make it in your child’s name. Run that profile so that scouts can see your child and do all that. That’s awesome. If your child is like, “Hey, this is my friend group, they’re really important to me and they only talk through this app,” again, do it through your phone. We’re not saying they cannot have any access to their friends or to technology. They shouldn’t have personal ownership of that technology before 15.

And I added that piece of and only if they’ve asked for it because some kids don’t ask for it. Some kids get to 15 and go, “Wow, you know what? I’ve seen enough of the trauma. I’ve seen my friends do this. I do like some of it, but my goodness, I don’t want one for myself because look at what it’s doing to people. I want to enjoy life. I want to have a childhood.” So we’re going to try to preserve childhood till 15. And then certainly at 15, if they’re asking, give them the opportunity to prove trustworthiness. You don’t just go, “You’re 15, now figure it out.” Are you faithful in little things? That’s what the standard that Jesus gives us, says, if you were faithful in little, you’d be faithful with much. So I would start with, how do you talk to your mom and dad? How do you handle your siblings? How do you handle your classmates? How do you handle your schoolwork? How do you handle your faith?

If you can show me in those things that you’re working and growing, and if I have to correct you on something, you receive it, that’s great. Because if you can’t treat a friend right in real life, there’s no way you’re going to handle that great on the internet. If you can’t be responsible at the pace of real life, there’s no way you’re going to be able to inhibit any kind of choice happening at the pace of the speed of light through a device that’s in your pocket. And we need to know that our children are prepared for the level of responsibility we’re giving them. Okay? It is absolutely reasonable. I was asked this actually just yesterday at a talk. Parent said, “Okay, but my kid’s 16 and he’s going to be the real world. And he keeps telling me, ‘I’m going to get a phone when I’m 18 and you might as well just let me make the mistakes now.'”

And I would tell you that’s not true. I understand that when you turn 21, you can buy yourself a firearm. And if you’re telling me you’re going to cause harm with a firearm, that doesn’t encourage me to give you one now. No. I don’t want you to make a bad decision. You will one day be an adult. I’m going to do everything I can to inhibit you causing harm to yourself or others. And if you tell me right now, “I’m going to make a mistake on this. Just give it to me now.” I’m not going to participate in that. You might turn 18 and decide to run off the rails and make every deliberate bad choice you can make. I get it. I’m praying against that. I love you. I’m going to serve you. I’m going to keep pursuing you even when you do that, but I’m not going to enable that.

And so do know, parents, that while you can feel kind of like you’re the hostage in this situation, you are being loving if you know for a fact your child isn’t ready. Another example, I had a young man, this is a while back, come to me and be like, “My parents, they never trust me. They didn’t give me anything. They won’t even let me have a smartphone.” Well, mom comes up and clarifies the record. He committed a felony with his phone when he was given it last time. So she’s like, “We love him and he can use our phone. That’s the deal. And he said he’d rather not use it than have to use an app on our phone.”

Okay, that’s loving. Your child proved he wasn’t ready for full-fledged freedom on the internet. Accountability software showed what happened, police got involved, and parents said, “We love you. You can’t be trusted with this device. It’s too much. So use ours. Use some safer version. Use the family computer.” And in his case, he just folds his arms and says, “No, I won’t participate. You don’t love me. You’re not letting me do what I want.” And that’s not true, parents. Those parents were very loving, and they were very clear with him. And while he didn’t hear it as love, my prayer was, one day he will. He’ll see and go, “You know what? I was on a really hard path to self-destruction and to hurting others and myself, and my parents lovingly intervened to the extent they could.”

So parents 15 if they ask, and if they’ve shown faithfulness in little things so they could be trusted with the incredible weight of something like a smartphone on the internet. And actually, I had two more. I said there were going to be five things, but I feel like we just covered a lot of ground and I don’t want to muddy the waters further. I don’t want to dilute all of that. So in reflection, let’s just go with these three today. When should you give your child a smartphone? First, know what we’re talking about with a smartphone. It’s an app delivery system focused on social media where kids run into strangers and bullies, where pornography is readily available, and where it is a full cross-platform gaming system. Then know that 15 is the age I suggest. It’s long enough to get runway to college and adulthood if your child is trustworthy and is asking for it. And if they make a mistake, it’s enough time to pull back the reins, work on what needs to be there, figure out how does your kid ticks.

And when your child is an adult, yeah, he or she will know like, oh, this is what my limits are. This is what I can do. This is what helps me be helpful and lines up with my goals and identity in Christ. So make sure you’ve got that. And then do know that some of the best dumb phones… I referenced them, but I don’t think I named them in this episode. So Gab makes a delightful dumb phone, meaning a phone that doesn’t have any, no drool tech, no app store, no web browser, accountability baked right in. So Gab makes a wonderful device. It’s a great starter phone for upper elementary.

And then the Bark phone is a newer device in terms of it’s only been out for like a year, but I really like it for that 13, 14, 15 age range, excuse me, 14, 15, 16 age range as your child is getting a device, but it’s still a dumb phone, like a defaults to nothing. Doesn’t have anything. It just looks cooler, so your kid won’t have people like, “Hey, why do you only have one lens?” I get it’s real. I’m sorry, but kids are mean. So has that, and then you can slowly roll out just what they are earning with trust that they’re showing they’re capable of handling. So lots of great accountability baked right in with all of that too, because the idea here is that we are raising up discerning young people. We’re raising up kids who understand how to use technology. We’re going to model that well from our side, and then help them answer the hard questions that they’re going to come up with that you and I really don’t have to deal with.

I don’t have to deal with peer pressure to use social media. Use it for my job, and then I can walk away. But it is different for our kids, and the relationship is the most important there. So thank you for being a part of this conversation. I hope this was encouraging and helpful. If it did help you, would you consider sharing it with someone? These are also on YouTube. Now, you can check out Gospel Tech on YouTube. That’s kind of crazy. You can find us on social media at LoveGodUseTech. If you have any questions, reach out to me, [email protected], or questions for the greater forum of future conversations, you can go [email protected]. And would you join me next week as we continue this conversation about how we can love God and use tech?

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