Before You Buy Your Kid a Phone for Christmas…

by Scott Mehl
It comes from kids:
Everyone has one!  
I’m so left out!
I never know what’s going on!

It comes from parents:
The truth is, I do want to be able to get ahold of you when I’m late picking you up.
I’m tired of getting all the text messages from your friends.

This is the time of year when justifications to buy your kid a phone shift into high gear. With Christmas approaching, parents are asking themselves again, “How old should my child be before I let them have a phone?” and “If I’m going to let them have a phone, what kind?”
Deciding when a child is ready to have a phone requires wisdom and differs from family to family and child to child. But I’m afraid that too many of us jump into this huge decision without taking the time to truly consider the impact and the costs involved. The negative mental-health impact of phones — and social media specifically — are well documented and widely reported. I won’t try to reproduce that information, but those interested in taking a deeper dive into those dynamics at work might appreciate the documentary, The Social Dilemma, or the book, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You.
Still, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution regarding kids and phones. Below I will offer a few principles as you consider these big and consequential questions, whether surrounding Christmas or not.

Know the Unique Strengths, Capacities, and Temptations of Your Child

Kids are all very different. That’s why no universal guideline can be applied to every child. Setting an arbitrary age at which you promise your child will be allowed to have a phone is a dangerous practice. One twelve-year-old may be able to handle the responsibility of a smartphone while another fifteen-year-old may not. The “everyone else is doing it” argument has been used for as long as teenagers have existed. Don’t believe it or give into it.
Take time to consider the unique makeup and temptations of your child. Make the decision that is right for them. Our first child received his first phone in the middle of 8th grade, our second child received hers in the middle of 7th. We told our kids from the very beginning, things aren’t going to be equal or the same, but we’re going to strive for our decisions with each of them to be wise. That’s our role as parents.

Recognize a Smartphone is Many Different Tools

For most kids, starting with a “dumb phone” (one without apps or internet access) probably makes a lot of sense. I think the term “smartphone” is a bit misleading. Most smartphones are only tangentially used as a telephone and might be more accurately called a “pocket computer.” They have nearly all the capacities of a computer, but fit in your pocket and don't require being plugged in more than once a day.
Viewing a smartphone this way helps us to recognize that it’s not simply one tool — a smartphone is, in reality, a collection of dozens of different tools. Some of these tools offer great benefits with relatively low risks (like a prayer journal app or a Bible app). Some of these tools offer negligible benefits to teens with astronomical risk to their mental and emotional health (like most social media apps). And there are all sorts of tools, apps, and features that fall everywhere in-between.
This is why I believe it’s wisest to introduce smartphones to kids in some form a tiered system that allows them to demonstrate their ability to manage and navigate simpler tools and apps well before they have permission to access more complicated tools or online spaces. Here are the six tiers we use in our home:

Tier 1: Only factory pre-set apps allowed on the phone. No internet browser use allowed. (Exceptions allowed for apps that directly aid spiritual disciplines or serve the family.)
Tier 2: Internet browsing allowed (with accountability software installed).
Tier 3: Video games allowed, if desired.
Tier 4: Select social media accounts with family/close friends allowed, if desired.
Tier 5: Video games with a social component allowed, if desired.
Tier 6: Other social media/messaging apps/accounts allowed, if desired.
You can see how we apply these tiers in the context of our entire smart phone contract here. Of course your family dynamics may require different boundaries or expectations. You may need a younger child to have a phone so you can coordinate transportation, a child may need a phone with a camera or apps for school earlier than you would prefer. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend our family’s contract as a one-size-fits all option. But I would recommend having some kind of written agreement of your own. This provides clarity and consistency, as well as forcing you to think through some of the potentially unintended consequences of your decision ahead of time. And for those who need a real basic option for younger kids, I know many families have found kids’ phones like the Gizmo Watch helpful.

Treat Social Media with Extra Caution

You’ll notice that generalized social media use is the final tier in our smartphone contract. This is because social media, and the complex factors at play, is an especially dangerous and complicated space for teenagers. The research clearly suggests that the still-developing brains of adolescents aren’t prepared to handle the constant, addictive, evaluation-based interactions that characterize social media spaces. It’s probably fair to argue that most adult brains probably don’t have that capacity either, but this is of particular concern among adolescents who are not only still physically developing (in body and brain) but are also in a season of acute identity formation where the clarity of who they are (and who they are in Christ) is still murky and developing.
While I don’t necessarily think the best option is to avoid social media completely until they’re out of the house, on their own, and unable to lean on parents for help and guidance, I would simply encourage parents (and teens) to engage in social media with extreme caution, clear expectations, and regular ongoing conversations. Anything written by Tony Reinke can be helpful in navigating your family conversations about social media and phones.

Help Your Kids Be Part of the Church Family

Finally, I believe one of the best things we can do for our kids when it comes to the questions surrounding their phone usage is to help them be deeply ingrained into the life of the church family. This may sound like a disconnected thought, but let me explain. Being an integral part of a church family gives teens the opportunity to receive affirmation and identity formation in the context of real, embodied relationships with people that they know love them and desire the best for them.
What’s more, the church family can help them navigate the temptations and frustrations of the ever-connected-world with wisdom, affirming the concerns and boundaries of their parents, and reminding them that their ultimate identity isn’t found in what their friends think or whether they seem to fit in online or in school. Their ultimate identity can only be found in Christ. Every teen will struggle to believe this (even if they know it's true), but God has provided all of us, including our younger members, the blessing of a church family that encourages, exhorts, warns, and affirms us at each step along our winding spiritual journeys (Hebrews 10:25). In the digital age, when questions about smartphones, social media, and true identity seem constant, it doesn’t just take a village to raise a child. It takes a church.