(Editor's Note: This article was published first in the December 2018 edition of the AFA Journal and was posted online HERE)
A hammer can be used to build or destroy. A gun can be used to protect or harm. A car can be used responsibly or recklessly. A smartphone – like any other tool – can be used for good. Or for bad. The determining factor is the person using the tool.
It is not only the tool one needs to control. It is also oneself.
Arguably one of the greatest technological strides forward in recent history, the smartphone has enabled anyone to find nearly any kind of data in a few seconds. It allows access to a virtual world of compiled information of all kinds, brought together from people all around the globe.
It is a key to the great marketplace of ideas on an ever-increasing scale, giving anyone with a responsible mind the freedom to learn about the world and connect with other users in an instant. It is a powerful tool if handled correctly, and simultaneously capable of destroying the user if used without care.
Smartphones and children?
Since they were created, smartphones have been a part of everyday life for teens and younger children, for better or worse. It is not uncommon to see 12-year-olds using their own phone to message their friends or browse the Internet.
According to a 2018 survey of U.S. teens by Pew Research Center, teen ownership of smartphones has become nearly ubiquitous, with 95% of teens reporting they either own or have regular access to the device. This is an increase from 88% reporting the same in a 2015 survey. As time progresses, the smartphone and other smart devices will continue to play a large role in cultural shifts of the U.S.
For every voice raised in praise of smartphones, there is someone ready to bemoan the negatives attributed to them. But what is a biblical view of this emerging technology? Author Tony Reinke wrote 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You to address the issue. The author explores how living in the digital world affects us spiritually, both positively and negatively.
“In the beginning,” he writes, “God created Adam out of mud and Eve out of a rib. Yahweh bent down and exhaled breath into their lungs, and they awoke into a strange world. … God first commanded his creatures to make babies, to collect food, and to govern the animals. But in those early commands, God had already drawn His endgame into His blueprints. The garden was only a beginning.
“The goal was a globe of technological advancement, leading to a creation so refined that the city streets will be paved thick with crystal gold. … So when Adam and Eve awoke and walked into the garden, an unseen, much larger plan was also set in motion. The untilled garden would become a glorious city… That’s where we find ourselves: east of Eden, west of the Great City, journeying now in God’s sovereignly guided history, holding smartphones.”
Yes, even those pesky smartphones that kids and teens seem to pour all their attention into are God-given tools to help us on the way to eternity future. With them, we can broadcast the gospel, bombard social media with truth, and help those in need with a few taps of our fingers.
So what’s the downside?
One of the negative effects, Reinke says, is that the user can become addicted to distraction.
“Our lives are consolidated on our phones,” he writes, “our calendars, our cameras, our pictures, our work, our workouts. … all of it can be managed with state-of-the-art apps in powerful little devices we carry everywhere. … No wonder we habitually grab our phones first thing in the morning, not only to turn off our alarms, but also to check email and social media in a half-conscious state of sleep inertia before our groggy eyes can open. … This reality is especially concerning if the morning is when we prepare our hearts spiritually for the day. … Our phones are addictive, and, like addicts, we seek hits immediately in the morning.”
If this is a problem among adults, how much more so among young people? In another 2018 survey by Pew, all teens said they check for messages or notifications as soon as they wake up. When asked how they felt when separated from their smartphone, most teens said they felt anxious, lonely, or upset.
Addiction, short attention spans, and shallow relationships were problems long before the advent of the smartphone, but never before have they been consolidated by one object. Of course, the natural question one would ask at this point is, “How do we control our smartphones?”
“The key to balancing ourselves in the smartphone age is awareness,” writes Reinke. “Digital technology is most useful to us when we limit its reach into our lives. The world will always expect technology to save humanity from its darkest fears, and to that end, it will submit more and more of itself to breaking innovations.
“But by avoiding the overreach of these misdirected longings for techno-redemption, we can simply embrace technology for what it is – an often helpful and functional tool to serve a legitimate need. Every technology requires limits, and the smartphone is no exception. If you find the smartphone is absolutely necessary for your life and calling, put clear regulators in place.”
Breaking the habit of reaching for the phone first thing in the morning or immediately when a notification appears requires a measure of self-discipline. Parents need to understand their own propensity to misuse their phones and pass that understanding along to their children. Smartphones should be thought of as digital multi-tools.
People have tools for a reason. They use them with intentionality, to build, develop, or cultivate the world around them.
Parents at the wheel
The first thing parents need to understand is that they are – or at least should be – in complete control of their child’s use of a smartphone. The simplest way to keep a child from abusing a smartphone is not to buy the phone in the first place. If there’s a legitimate reason a child needs a smartphone, there are many ways to monitor and set limits on its use. A number of available applications set time limits to social media, Internet browsing, or texting.
The most foolproof way to restrict smartphone use is to do two things: first, delete any and all social media and Internet browsing apps; and second, go into the phone’s settings and take away the ability to download apps without a passcode that only the parents know. This limits the phone to texting and making calls, which are the only two things most children need in a smartphone.
A balanced and biblical approach to smartphones for children and teens goes beyond protecting them from cyberbullying and addiction. It is teaching them self-discipline, awareness of the important things that don’t exist on a screen, and how to master technology without being mastered by it.
12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke is available at christianbook.com as well as other online and local booksellers.