I was talking last week with our ministry’s accountant about some of my plans for the future. Of course that involved my hope to publish a book about the church’s current approach to ministering to young people, and how it needs to change if we are to hope to have our children grow up as mature disciples of Jesus.
The conversation turned to her own 12-year-old daughter who is feeling the pressure from her peers to have a smart phone. Her mom and dad are trying to hold the line until she is 16 and driving by herself. This is almost unheard of in our culture today. Now, many grade schoolers have their own phones. The pressure on parents to give their kids a phone is immense.
One of my greatest concerns about our Christian kids is they are being raised in much the same way as kids whose parents are not believers. This includes the way technology is introduced and used. Like so many things, new is not always better, but our culture, including most of us, can be seduced by the “latest, greatest.” And with regard to smartphones, it doesn’t take many parents allowing their kids early access to them to begin a trend among the next generation that everyone has to have one.
Since the introduction of the i-Phone (the first smart phone) in 2007, anxiety has been on the rise among children and teens. One study concluded that the number of children and teens experiencing anxiety rose by three percent between 2003 and 2012. Another study concluded that this increased by an additional 20 percent between 2007 and 2012! There is still a lot of debate among researchers about the role of the smartphone in these rapid increases, but the old adage—where there is smoke, there is fire—seems to apply.
From my perch downstream on the university campus, I have seen anxiety rapidly increase among students. Five years ago, the most common presenting problem at university counseling centers was depression. Since then, anxiety has replaced that, and as the director of my university’s counseling center said two years ago, they can’t hire enough counselors to handle the surge of students seeking their services. I now encounter more students on anxiety medication than I have in the past. I hear more students talking as if anxiety is a normal part of life. And I have definitely noticed a monumental shift in student behavior. I estimate that 75 percent of the students I see on campus have their smartphones in hand. Many are looking at them as they walk across campus. In the library or dining halls, students are looking at their phones much of the time. Professors have lost the battle of controlling their use in their classrooms.
For many young believers, they are a distraction to their devotional time. One student recently said he struggled to sit and read the Bible because his phone notifications would continually distract him. And Christian students who use Bible apps as their sole way of reading the Scriptures have little knowledge of how these books are ordered, or where to look if they have to use a printed Bible to find a particular verse or passage. I use a Bible app a lot, but I grew up as a teen and emerging adult using a printed Bible. It is convenient to type in the name of a book and it suddenly appear before you as a opposed to going to the Table of Contents to find the page number, but the convenience comes at a price for our kids.
I am not about to advocate ridding ourselves of our smartphones. They have their purpose and are quite useful. I make use of mine a lot. But I do want to advocate to you who are believers and are parents of young children or desire to be, to consider carefully how and when you introduce your kids to screens, and then what limits you initiate on their use. Like so many “great” inventions of the past that only after their use was entrenched in the culture (see lead paint and pipes, arsenic, asbestos, cigarette smoking, and, of course, opioids) did researchers discover their dangers to our health. There is only now growing research pointing to the negative effects of smartphones and tablets on our kids mental health, long after they have become commonplace in our homes and lives.
Christian parents need to be very intentional, persistent, and vigilant in preventing their children from the adverse effects of these devices. Companies that make smartphones and develop apps are concerned about one thing—profit. Like some of the big drug companies, they may say publicly they are committed to preventing addiction, but it is that very addiction that provides them with their money streams. No for-profit company easily takes actions that will harm its bottom-line. They will continue to promote their use among children and teens, designing phones and apps with features meant to entice them. And many parents of your children’s friends will allow their kids to have them. Please recognize the danger of giving into your kids’ pressure on you to have what their friends have.
I know this is so hard, but it is not impossible. One way is to get support from other Christian parents who have the same concerns. I recently came across a group that impressed me about their concern and approach for helping parents navigate these technological minefields. It’s called START, and I would encourage you who are parents of any age of children, or wanting children, to check out their resources. (FYI: This is not a Christian organization.) You could use them as a means of support among your peers.
As one who is working downstream where most of your kids will one day find themselves, I know things need to change upstream where they are living and developing habits that will be difficult to change later on. The better the habits, the better their lives will be, and the more capable they will be to handle what life throws at them. Our Lord tells us not to worry or hold onto our anxiety. Let us help our kids grow up to integrate obedience to these commands into their lives, so they can experience the full life the Lord has promised if we follow him.
© Jim Musser 2020