Balancing Protection & Freedom: Navigating Smartphone Use for Preteens

September 05, 2023

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Join Elizabeth Urbanowicz on the Foundation Worldview Podcast as she addresses a pressing concern for today's parents: How to strike a balance between safeguarding preteens from digital pitfalls, like explicit content, while still allowing them the freedom to connect with peers. Dive into biblically-informed and reality-based approaches to guide and protect the young minds entrusted to our care in a digital age.


Note: The following is an auto-transcript of the podcast recording.

Hello friends, and welcome to another episode of the Foundation Worldview podcast where we seek to answer your questions so that you can equip the children that God has placed in your care, to carefully evaluate every idea they encounter and understand the truth of the biblical worldview. I'm your host, Elizabeth Urbanowicz, and I'm thrilled that you've joined me for another episode today. Today's question says, "I have a 12 year old who has his own iPhone. How can I protect him from harmful things like pornography while giving him the freedom to communicate with his friends?" This is such an important question, especially in the culture in which we find ourselves, and it's a question that I'm sure many parents are asking, even if you don't have a child who's yet in the stage when his or her peers are getting smartphones. So it's really important that we think through this and what is a biblical, reality-based, healthy answer for the children that God has placed in our care?

Now, before we dive down deep into that question today, as always, I would ask that if you have found the content of this podcast beneficial, that you make sure that you like and subscribe so that you don't miss any future episodes. And I'd also ask you to consider taking the time to write a review so that more people will find this content and then be equipped to get the kids in their care carefully evaluating every idea they encounter.

Now, as we think through this question of children and smartphones, what I'm going to say in my response is something that I know is going to make a lot of listeners uncomfortable or upset or maybe even angry. Now, those of you who have followed this ministry for a while know that I do not enjoy making others uncomfortable, upset, or angry. However, I think for the purpose of truths, especially truths that are very, very important, feathers are worth ruffling.

So here we go. My simple answer to this question is your 12 year old should not have an iPhone. In fact, your 14 or 15 year old should not have an iPhone. As I said before, I understand that this statement may have made many listeners upset or angry. So if what I just said made you feel one of those emotions, I just ask you to take a deep breath and please just hear me out for the next 15 to 20 minutes where I'm going to try to systematically build a case for why 16 year olds or children under the age of 16 or potentially even 16 and 17 year olds should not have an iPhone or any smartphone. Now, to build this case, we're going to explore three questions. The first question is, what is our reasoning behind giving our children smartphones? Second, are these reasons valid? And third, what are the potential dangers of our children having their own smartphone?

So let's look at the first question. What is our reasoning behind giving our children smartphones? Now, I don't know all of the reasonings for everyone who is watching or listening to this podcast. However, as I've observed people within my sphere of influence, the parents within my sphere of influence, I've heard three typical reasons for why they have chosen to give their children smartphones. The first common reason that I've heard, which I think is the most common reason, is we need a way of communicating with our children and keeping track of their location when they are not at home. So that's the first reason that I've heard. The second reason I've heard is our children need a way to communicate with their friends. And then the third common reason I've heard is all of our kids' friends have a smartphone, and we have held out longer than most parents. So those are three reasons that I have heard commonly given for why parents choose to give their children smartphones.

So then the second question that we're going to explore is, are these reasons valid? Okay, so are these reasons why we should actually consider giving our children smartphones? So we're going to go through each reason one at a time. So the first reason that I mentioned is that we need a way of communicating with our children and keeping track of their location when they are not at home. Okay, so is this reason valid? Well, when we think through it, it is wise to have a way to communicate with our children when they're not at home. Now, most people throughout human history have had no way of communicating with their children when they were not at home. However, we live in a time and culture where our children can be in many different places outside of our home. So it is wise to think through this. However, being able to communicate with our children does not require that they have a smartphone. There are non-smart phones. Yes, they still exist. In fact, there were phones that were created and designed specifically for the purpose of not having children on smartphones. There's phones such as gab phones, which allow a child to call and to text without giving them any of the other features of a smartphone, no internet connection. Okay? So it is wise to have a way to communicate with our children when they're not at home, but that does not necessitate a smartphone.

Next, we need to think through, okay, should we be able to keep track of our children at all times when they're not with us? Well, again, this is something that most parents throughout human history have not had the capability of doing. However, we live in a time and culture where gps has been invented, and many parents I know have a fear of their child being kidnapped. So they think, "okay, if my child has his or her smartphone on them, I can track the location and it'll be much easier to find him or her should they get kidnapped". Now, obviously, we want to put protections. We want to put measures so that our children are much less likely to be kidnapped and that we can, if that should happen, that we can track their location. Now, the thing that I find a little bit odd about this justification of a smartphone to help a child not get kidnapped is nowadays children are much less likely to be kidnapped by someone who they have never had any interaction with. I know in the seventies and eighties and nineties, some children got kidnapped by people driving around in vans trying to lure them in with candy. And while that could potentially happen today, and we hope that it would not, the majority of children who are taken by someone who is not a member of their family are by someone they have had online interactions with in the past who that person is then able to track their location through their phone or they've agreed to meet that person somewhere. So having a smartphone can actually increase the risk of kidnapping rather than decrease the risk of kidnapping. So a great alternative is there are actually little kid-friendly gps tracking devices that you can just put in your child's book bag or you can put in his or her pocket and then they connect to your phone so that you can track your child when he or she is not within your home.

Now, other parents might say, "well, I want to keep track of my kids' location, but it's not that I'm worried about them being kidnapped. They're 14 years old, they're pretty smart. They're not going to get into a car with a stranger. I'm worried about my child lying about his or her location. That's why I want to be able to track it." Well, if your child is prone to lying and not telling you the truth about his or her location, that's an issue that needs to be addressed separately, that that lying needs to be addressed without just putting a tracking device in his or her hand. That is a huge problem. So lying about location is not just an automatically, oh, therefore we go for the smartphone. Also, there are other ways of finding out if our kids have been lying to us rather than just putting a smartphone in their hands. Because if we have a child who is skilled at deceiving us, do we really then want a device in their hands where they can connect to the entire world? That's actually an even greater risk.

I know my parents, when I was growing up and my siblings were growing up, while cell phones were out when we were in high school, the smartphone had not yet been invented, and my parents used to always pray that if and when we sinned, we would be caught quickly so that we would come to repentance. And let me tell you that prayer worked very well, and one of my siblings got into a habit of lying a lot in high school, and you would not believe the ways in which God answered that prayer and revealed to my parents that that sibling had been lying. So all that to say, if we want to keep tabs on our children at all time because he or she is lying to us, the smartphone is not the only option, and it's not really even a good option if that is the case.

So just in summary of this first reason we give to justify why our kids need to get a smartphone, that we need to communicate with them when they're not with us, and we need a way of keeping track of their location. Those are two good things to think through, but a smartphone need not be the solution, nor is it even the wisest solution for that reason.

The second reason that parents give often for why their children need cell phones is my child needs a way of communicating with their friends. Okay, let's think through this reason. Do our children need to have healthy friendships? Yes, absolutely. God has created us as relational beings. God himself is relational, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have been imperfect, loving communion with one another from eternity past and will be into eternity future. As God's image bearers, he has created us with the need to have relationships, and we do want our children to have healthy relationships. We want them to know how to develop healthy relationships.

However, talking with friends and texting them can be done on phones that are not smartphones. We don't automatically need to give our child a smartphone because we want him or her to be able to communicate with their friends. It can be done in a non-smart phone. Also, even just thinking about communication, texting really isn't a healthy form of communication unless it's like, "Hey, soccer practice starts at 3:30", or "I'm coming to pick you up. Be outside of the school in 15 minutes", for those quick time things. Yeah, texting can be helpful. However, for conversations, for getting to know people, for building relationships, texting is not a healthy form of communication because God has given us as humans so many means of communicating outside of just our words. And when someone says words, you can't see their body language. You can't see their facial expressions, you can't see their eyes, you can't hear their tone of voice, and so we're missing all of these key elements to communication.

So texting is not a healthy way of communication, and it also trains kids to not know how to read body language, to read facial expressions, to read tone of voice. And actually researchers have found that the more time a child spends online and the more time a child spends texting with friends, the greater their risk is for anxiety, for depression and for suicidal thoughts. Now, adversely, the more time that a child spends in in-person relationships, the lower their risk factor is for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. So yes, we do need to think through how our children can develop healthy relationships. However, smartphones need not be the answer, and smartphones are not the wisest answer to developing relationships and communicating with friends.

The third reason that we frequently give ourselves for why our children need a smartphone is we'll say, well, all their friends already have one, and we have held out longer than most parents. Now, that reasoning might come into our mind, but maybe in different words, but once we say it out loud, I hope everyone watching or listening realizes that that is just bad reasoning. We should never, ever, ever, ever make parenting decisions based on what other parents are doing. Who cares what other parents are doing? We need to understand what has God commanded us to do? What is best for this child?

Okay, so we've seen with these three reasons that parents tend to give for why their kids need smartphones, while some of them are wise to think through, how can we communicate with our kids when they're not there, and how can we keep track of their location, and then how can they communicate with their friends and develop healthy relationships? Those are important things for us to think through, but smartphones need not be the answer, nor are they the wisest answer.

Then the third question we need to ask ourselves is, what are the dangers of our children having their own smartphones? Okay, we're going to go through some of the dangers and talk through them. One that is obvious and was already asked within this question is pornography that over 70% of children who use smartphones are exposed to pornography. Think about that. That means that if there are 10 children in your neighborhood with a smartphone, at least seven of those children have been exposed to pornography, and we know how addictive pornography is. We know how it destroys a person's view of sex and sexuality. It just distorts God's good design. We know that it ruins future relationships. It ruins marriages. We know that it ruins sex within marriage.

And so if there's this great, the 70% risk that our children are going to be exposed to pornography, why are we going to give them a device that just increases that risk? Another danger of having our children on their own smartphone is we are hindering healthy brain development. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part of the brain that's responsible for reasoning and for executive functioning that is still developing until the age of 25, and screen use for entertainment purposes hinders the use of that region of the brain and the development of that region of the brain. Because with the way that God has designed our brains is when we are born, our brains just have these billions of connections. These neurological connections within our brains, not all of them are utilized. As children grow, more and more of these areas should be utilized. However, when there are certain synapses or connections in the brain that are not utilized, what our brain does is our brain then prunes away those connections so they're no longer taking up room in our brain, and so that our brain can focus on the connections that are already being made.

And so if from a young age, and by a young age, I mean the age of 15 or younger, our children are exposed to hours of screens a day for entertainment purposes. What's happening is their prefrontal cortex is not developing properly, and many of those connections in that area of the brain because they're not being used, are pruned away. So that means that we are hindering our children's ability to think logically and also to perform executive functioning tasks. With executive functioning, think about an executive of a company. An executive is in charge of managing all the other employees at a company. Executive functioning is what regulates all of the different areas of self-control, of time management of organization, all the other areas of the brain. So if we are letting our children on screens for multiple hours a day, including on smartphones, what we're doing is we're hindering their ability to reason, their ability to manage time well, their ability to control their impulses, their ability to organize ideas and information. So we're really hindering brain development.

On top of that, brain researchers have found that there's actually a chemical addiction that is created when our children are on their smartphones, not when they're using their smartphones to talk to someone. But let's face it, what percentage of smartphone usage is used to talk to someone through a phone call? Very, very little. But when our children are texting, when they're playing a video game, when they're watching a video on YouTube, if they're on social media, if they're searching the internet, what's happening is with each of the little things that happens in those activities, they get a hit of dopamine. Now, when a text goes off to phone buzzes, there's a little hit of dopamine. Video games and social media have even larger hits of dopamine, and those who are creating video games and who are creating the algorithms on social media, what they're doing is they actually have brain researchers on their teams, and these brain researchers are helping them understand when there needs to be a new reward or when there needs to be something that pops out or when there needs to be a new level so that there's a hit of dopamine at the appropriate time so that our children are actually addicted.

Those who are creating all these apps for smartphones are not thinking about healthy child development. What they're thinking about is dollars and cents. And what happens when our kids get these hits of dopamine or when anyone gets these hits of dopamine, our brains are flooded with dopamine and it's too much dopamine from what they're given from these screen-based activities. And what happens when our brains are flooded with too much dopamine? The dopamine receptors are flooded, and our brain says, oh, there's too much of this chemical. So what do we need to do to stop too much of this chemical from being absorbed in our brain? Well, some of the dopamine receptors need to be killed off, so that's what our brain does. It kills, it shrinks some of the dopamine receptors.

So then if our kids want to get that same high, that same feeling of reward, there needs to be greater and greater hits of dopamine because they have fewer dopamine receptors. And as this process continues, as the brain continues to get flooded with dopamine, more and more dopamine receptors are killed off, and so it's actually creating a chemical addiction. Brain researchers have found that this chemical addiction to smartphones is stronger than the chemical addiction to cocaine. The same thing happens in the brain when the body ingests cocaine, but the addiction is even greater with smartphones. Would highly recommend that if you already have smartphones in your home for someone other than you and your spouse, that you check out the organization ScreenStrong. They have great resources that you can check out to help get smartphones out of your kids' hands and really create healthy brain development and get rid of these chemical addictions.

We'll just go through a few more risks of kids having smartphones. I mentioned this slightly before, but there is an increased risk of unhappiness, anxiety, depression, and suicide with smartphone usage. According to research, a Jean M. Twenge, every activity done on a smartphone, outside of making actual phone calls, increases the risk of unhappiness, anxiety, depression, and suicide. Now, this doesn't mean if you give your child a smartphone, they're going to be depressed or they're going to have great anxiety. It just means that their risk is increased. As I mentioned earlier, the type of communication that is done on smartphones, aside from FaceTiming or phone calling, it does not build healthy relationships. Texting is good for quick, "I'm going to pick you up here", "Let's meet here", "What time is this?". It's great for those kind of things, but for actual relationship building, it is not healthy.

I actually saw this in my own life, and I'm sure if you reflect, you can see examples of this in your own lives. But a while ago, there was a gentleman who was pursuing me, and sometimes I can be a little dense in these things, and I didn't realize he was interested in me, but he was texting me a lot. And so we would just get in these texting conversations. We'd go back and forth. We were texting a lot throughout the day, and after a while, we just felt like we knew one another so well because we were texting all the time. However, when we actually took time out of our schedules to spend time together, we realized we know so little about one another because yeah, we might know these facts about one another's lives because we're texting all day, but we actually don't know who the other person really is.

And so texting, if we're letting our kids just develop relationships through texting, they're not learning to build real friendships. There are other dangers such as bullying through texting, through social media apps. As we talked about before, there's the risk of sexual predators, increased risk of actual kidnapping. Now, these things might not be likely that sexual predators or kidnapping will happen. Why would in the world would we want to increase those risks for our children?

So this is why as we looked at this case, we saw these three reasons that we tend to give for why we would give our children smartphones. We saw that while some of those reasons are things we should think through, smartphones are not the answer to that. And then there are huge, huge risks of pornography, hindered brain development, chemical addiction, the risk of unhappiness, anxiety, depression, and suicide, that they're not learning how to develop real relationships. They have a greater risk of being bullied and being attacked by a sexual predator or being kidnapped. And so why in the world would we put these devices in our kids' hands?

As I mentioned before, if you have already made the decision to give your kids a smartphone and after this watching or listening to this podcast, you're thinking that it might not be the wisest idea. Highly recommend that you check out the organization ScreenStrong just for information on how you can safely get these devices out of your kids' hands, replace them with forms of communication that are going to be healthy, that are going to be God honoring and still enable you to keep them safe. Just as a reminder, I know this is something that the Foundation Worldview audience already knows, but just as a reminder, if your kids kick and scream against this, whether it's you just saying no, that you're not going to give them a smartphone while they're in your house, or if it's you taking this smartphone away, that is incredibly difficult and it is incredibly counter-cultural. But we as Christians need to be okay with being different. This is what we are called to as Christians, that as we are living life faithfully to Jesus, as we are faithfully raising up disciples, we are going to look very, very different.

And it's important that we are used to that and we're okay with that, and we stand strong in that. Stand strong on God's Word, stand strong within the Christian community, and that we help our children get used to being different.

Well, that's a wrap for this episode. As always, we leave our time together. My prayer for you is that no matter the situation in which you and the children God has placed in your care, find yourselves. You would trust that God is working all things together for your good by using all things to conform you more into the image of his son. I'll see you next time.

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