Should teens have smart phones?

girl smartphone

The short answer: Yes, and no. The long answer: smart phones aren’t the problem.

In the last week I’ve read several articles from social media pundits (including Matt Walsh) and news agencies (like NPR) about how smart phones are ruining our kids. And the consensus from these “experts” is that parents should wait as long as possible before getting their kids a smart phone. This is the first generation in the history of the world, they say, that is living with the omnipresence of smart phones and all that they come with. Others argue just as vehemently that kids need technology in order to prepare them for the real world.

So, who is right? And what’s a parent to do?

Let’s answer this media parenting question with a swimming analogy. One of our favorite things to do in the summer is go to the pool. Have you ever sat by the pool and just listened to the sounds that kids make when they’re swimming? It’s one of the happiest sounds you’ll ever hear. Kids tend to gravitate toward the water, and for good reason. It’s fun, and it feels amazing on a hot day. But no parent in their right mind would purposely leave their toddler unsupervised near the water. The consequences of unsupervised pool time for kids who can’t swim are catastrophic. Right-minded parents are always there, just in case something does happen.

I don’t know a single parent who suggests that kids should wait until they’re 18 to learn how to swim. Teaching kids young helps prepare them. We could say swimming lessons protect kids. But what we’re really saying is that swimming lessons empower kids. It not only empowers kids to enjoy pool time, but for those rare circumstances when knowing how to swim might save their life. Now even though my 7-year-old knows how to swim, there’s no way I would allow her to swim in a fast-moving river. To throw her in with the rapids and waterfalls and undertows is unthinkable.

So, let’s bring this back to media parenting and smart phones. A researcher friend once put it this way: Our kids are immersed in media, like fish in water, and sometimes that water is contaminated. We can try to protect our kids from media, but that’s like trying to protect a fish from water. We just can’t. We can postpone the inevitable by disallowing smart phones until our kids reach adulthood, but they’re going to be exposed to the content regardless. The role of parents, then, is to empower our kids by giving them media swimming lessons—we need to talk with them early and often about dangers found in social media, texting, and all the other ways teens communicate these days. And then, when we do allow smart phones, it’s not enough to give our kids free reign. That’s like unsupervised toddler swimming time. When it comes to media, our teenagers are like toddlers. They need supervision. But they also need media experiences that are accompanied by the consistent guidance and supervision of a media literate parent.

In other words, smart phones aren’t the problem. Just like food isn’t a problem, it’s what we allow our kids to eat that becomes problematic. In our home, our teenagers (once they turn 13) can buy their own smart phone, but we do not allow Instagram, Snapchat, or any other social media besides Facebook. We have access to their texts and their accounts. All phones stay in the living room at night. Because of the nature of media, our kids are going to see things in the media that make us want to throw up, but because we started media parenting early, our hope is that they’re empowered to deal with the bad, while enjoying the good, when they encounter it in the media.

So, yes, this is the first generation of kids who’ve had to deal with such a media environment. But this is also the first generation of parents who’ve dealt with the same thing. And if we want to change the way media affects kids, we’ve first got to change parents. We need parents who are involved. Who know the dangers. Who know the benefits. And who are willing to put in the work to empower their kids to swim in this media-saturated world.

Media parenting is like providing swimming lessons for our kids. It is smart parenting to help our kids become media literate when they’re young. We should teach them the dangers of media content, of social media, of texting, and of loss of connection with others that can come as a result of excessive smart phone use. We need to have these conversations early and often.

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