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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."

In a recent essay in Comment, Peter Leithart writes:

"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.


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17 thoughts on “Why Our Son Doesn’t Have a Smartphone”

  1. Rebecca says:

    Very insightful post. We have a fifteen year old son who does not have a smartphone either. My husband and I have mixed emotions about our decision, because we wonder if he should have our guidance maniging his time using a smartphone. We are teaching him to manage time on the computer. As an adult will he self regulate his time using his smartphone if he’s never had the experience under our supervision?
    I completely agree about quenching your thirst for knowledge, then commenting for acceptance and then for me I feel rejection because nobody really cares what I write or post beyond the moment. It’s a vicious cycle.

  2. Eliza Huie says:

    Hi Trevin
    Great article. I appreciate your willingness to share your decision but especially appreciate your “why”. Each one of our kids got their first smart phone at 18 (they survived!). We had similar convictions and saw the impact in each one when they got their first smart phone—they catch up fast! They take to it like fish in water. However our decision to avoid a smart phone (and our boundaries we set with other digital devices) was a helpful foundation when they did finally get one. They understood that they were not entitled to owning one, that it is a privilege, and a responsibility. It has also allowed us to continue to be able to speak into their digital use without it seeming intrusive or controlling. It set the stage for the conversations to be a continual part of our shepherding them.
    I put your book on my reading list. I look forward to reading it as I believe we will see more of the impact of social media and digital living in years to come. Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation spotlights one of the most concerning impacts I see as a counselor. We are losing the ability to have conversation. I could say more but this is a comment and not a blog post  Thanks again for writing!- Eliza

  3. Curt Day says:

    I agree with the decision not to let the kid have a smart phone. In fact, I wish some adults did not have smart phones as well. From what I’ve seen, smart phones make us less interactive in face-to-face settings.

    An excellent book on the overuse of technology and social media was written by MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle called Reclaiming Conversation. In that book, she notes that our personal interactions and our time alone can be negatively affected by the overuse of technology and social media.

  4. oddballs unite. same same same! content aside, we don’t want to turn our kids into zombies. “instead of being seen doing something, we are doing something to be seen” is the mindset we really want to avoid, content aside. thanks for going deep here.

  5. Garrett Kell says:

    Good insights brother. Lord, help us navigate wisely!

  6. A Christian Parent Swimming Against the Technological Current says:

    Excellent post! Thank you!

    Somehow, many parents survived teenage years without a cell phone. We went to school, were involved in afterschool activities, dated, and even got our Driver’s Licenses without a cell phone!

    It is my opinion that a lot of what drives the pressure to give children phones is first to ‘babysit them’ with games and videos, and then to assuage growing parental fears about safety.

    Technology is wonderful. Forums such as this did not exist a generation ago. The ability to communicate instantly across continents is helpful in many ways. However, few could argue with the high cost counted by children and their families.

  7. John says:

    I hope your Son doesn’t read this – I would’ve been mortified if my Dad wrote this on the internet about me at 12. But hey, I don’t know your kid.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      He gave me permission first. :-)

  8. Frank says:

    As an IT expert and parent of an early teen, let me applaud your choice to NOT jump into that hornet’s nest at an early age.

    i deal EVERY DAY with friends and clients who are trying to extricate their family from porn and all the other issues of the social culture.

    My teens (all sub 14) do not even have their own computers, even though I could easily provide 10 for each of them. It’s not a responsibility they need at this point in their lives.

    Childhood should be for fun and development of physical skills, but we’ve made (i think) a huge mistake by forcing kids into this social arena before their time.

    my 13yr old would FAR rather play football or soccer with friends than waste time on an ipad, yet almost all his friends are addicted to stupid games on their smartphones, so it’s hard for him to hang out with them.

    And sadly, most of his friends have been exposed to pornography as a result of their parent’s choice to give unfettered internet access early on…

  9. Joel says:

    Thanks for writing this. I have an 11 year old son and in a few weeks my first teenage daughter. We have been holding out giving our kids too much tech access too soon. I think we will hold off a little longer.

  10. Puja Pal says:

    We should control our kids otherwise we have to face worse outcomes from their sides. Kids are like a sand we can make them as create them If we give them smartphone in the age of 12 then this will cause very harmful conditions for them because internet is full of adult content and Instagram too.

  11. Larry Pounds says:

    Trevin, again, a very insightful and wise article. Although it is hard to swim against the tide (and it is STRONG), we need more families to THINK rather than just react. Thanks for the communication skills God has blessed you with.

  12. Nick Stuart says:

    I read this on my smartphone.

  13. Andrew Forbes says:

    Difficult problem; we have allowed our kids to have smartphones. Not without reservations, and our experience back up a lot of what people have written here (without the pornography, so far as I’m aware). The various social media apps are the kids’ principal means of communicating with their friends, outside the school campus. Without these, they’d be social outcasts. With huge reservations, we decided not to force this on our kids. I think their conversations with friends reflect the health of their friendships; I don’t know of any social media problems to date. The main downside is the vast amount of total nonsense they have watched; not so much harmful, but total nonsense and time wasted, nonetheless. The worries we may have had about pornography, sexting and all that have been groundless, for us at least.

  14. Patty H says:

    There are cell phones out there like the firefly that you can assign to a child. It restricts them to only get calls and texts from numbers that you assign to the phone and there is no internet access on it. It is a prepaid phone. http://www.familysafemedia.com/firefly_prepaid_mobile_phone.html It is great for child to have for emergency purposes and to get in touch with family. Makes them develop responsiblilty and you don’t have to worry about them being on the internet. I learned about this phone when I reviewed it over 10 years ago through Bzzagent. My son is 23 now and I have been where most of you are now.

  15. Jim says:

    Trevin,

    Thanks for putting words to my jumbled thoughts on this. My oldest is just young enough not to worry about this yet – but my wife and I still worry about it. It’s easy for us to use Covenant Eyes and explain to folks our desire to avoid dangerous content – not so easy to explain the more complex issues at hand. Still, I’m overwhelmed by friends, coworkers, and even fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t even consider the former, much less the latter. Lord, give us wisdom.

  16. Barbie says:

    This article was sent to me by a friend, as I was telling her how a cell phone had become a source of arguements and poor attitude . It hit the home to our vet struggle .We recently took my 13 year olds cell phone, after him literally being unable to keep off of it, on a day off school . How ridiculous is it to be fighting over a phone? And how quickly his behavior CHANGED , once he was removed from it. His interactions with his little sister improved, he generally seemed more relaxed . We monitor him , but noticed it’s like an addiction . It’s created un necesary drama, and the worst , dishonesty . We got ithe phone for him with HUGE reservations, last summer , but we were going on a trip w a soccer team, and wanted a way of communication in case of an Emergency. His excess has also opened my eyes to our excess use, and have curtailed our use in response .. no more FB , less texting. Thank you for your article , I think it’s something kids should read as well . Just might own up a mind or two.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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