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Parenting and Smartphones: Setting New Norms for our Church and Families


A preteen smokes a cigarette behind a local pharmacy. A preteen drinks a few beers he stole from his dad’s refrigerator. A preteen scrolls through images and videos of models for hours before she falls asleep.

Rank which of these you think is the most destructive.

Really, it’s an unfair question, because they’re all destructive. But my guess is that smartphone use ranked last for most of us. Perhaps that’s because we’ve given our kids smartphones. Or perhaps it’s because we see ourselves in that 12-year-old.

Whatever the reason, the time has come for parents of teenagers and younger to re-evaluate our position on smartphones, because the latest research on smartphone and social media usage among teenagers suggests it might be as bad or worse than cigarettes and alcohol.

In Jonathan’s Haidt’s groundbreaking book The Anxious Generation, he shows that smartphone and social media usage amongst teenagers is quite literally rewiring their brains during their most important developmental stages.

He’s shown that using them is strongly associated with serious mental health disorders that are wrecking lives, causing suicides, and leaving an entire generation incapacitated by anxiety. A teen using a smartphone is at risk of significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, anti-social behavior, sleep problems, lower academic performance, suicidality, eating disorders, body image issues, and much more.

Worse yet, smartphone usage has been shown to be addictive. Social media apps were developed by behavioral psychologists who studied other addictive behaviors (slot machines in particular) and designed them to utilize addictive variable reward feedback loops, using advanced machine learning to perfect them and tailor them to individual people—including your kids.

So it’s no surprise that U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory telling parents not to give their children social media before 14.

Slow down and let that sink in.

There’s a surgeon general’s warning on every pack of cigarettes—and now there’s one for teenage social media use.

But here’s the problem: parents are the ones passing out the digital cigarettes. In many ways, we’re like Americans in the midcentury who had no idea how bad cigarettes were for their health. They’d been fed lies by cigarette corporations, and there was no social stigma against smoking. But eventually the tide turned, data proved the dangers, and culture changed.

If you’re a parent who’s already given your preteen or teenager a smartphone, I’m not here to shame you. I am here to say we’ve all been duped. But now that we know that smartphones and social media are likely to cause a massive array of mental health disorders, we have to adjust.

Maybe we planned to give a phone at the next birthday, but now you’re wondering, Am I giving my kid a six-pack incognito? Or maybe you already gave a phone away and you’re realizing, Am I going to have to help my kid detox from an addiction?

What we cannot do is stay the course.

A common sense poll found that 38% of children between the ages of 8 to 12 are using digital dope for multiple hours a day. Despite weak laws prohibiting children under 13 from getting on to Instagram, 40% of preteens report having an account.

We’ve let the digital Philip-Morris’s have our children. Now that we know the truth, we must take them back.

Are Smartphones worse than Cigarettes?

If you told me that you were buying your child cigarettes or booze, I would feel no problem telling you that what you’re doing is wrong. I hope you’d do the same for me! This is likely because such choices are culturally taboo and biblically unwise.

The difference with social media is that there’s no cultural taboo (yet) about giving your 10-year-old a smartphone with access to Instagram. And yet, the data is clear: it’s as destructive as cigarettes. It literally rewires the brain, elevates depression and anxiety, and causes a menagerie of mental health disorders.

Just like cigarettes, the effects hit people differently at different times. But the reason I say that smartphones are worse than cigarettes is simple: one destroys the body, but the other destroys the soul.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

Of course, he’s telling us to fear God and fear eternal destruction. But he’s also making a point: what can destroy the body is far less scary than what can destroy the soul.

As a parent, your primary job is to disciple your child to be more like Jesus. Your ultimate hope should be that they know him into eternity. This means you must take the care of your child’s mind and mental health seriously. You must understand that the worst thing cigarettes can do is cause cancer that kills you. The worst thing that social media can do is cause lifelong mental health problems, lifelong addiction, lifelong loneliness, and lifelong battles with suicidality.

So, yeah. I’m more afraid of digital dope than cigarettes. And you should be, too.

Creating New Norms

Again, the problem we face are cultural norms. But there’s good news: the church is a counterculture!

The church is one of the only places that can and will take the lead on de-normalizing teen and preteen smartphone and social media drug use.  Schools can’t do it. Politicians haven’t done it. Therapists rarely do it. The only ones who can stop smartphone addiction are parents, but to do that they need the support of other parents. They need to be surrounded by new norms.

After all, when our kids tell us that their friends all have cellphones and they’ll be left out, we believe them. We know the parents of those kids are good people (they are!), and, surely, they know what they’re doing. So, we give into peer pressure and buy the device.

Research into addictive behaviors shows that the more normalized an addictive substance is in a culture, the more pervasive it becomes.

I know that’s obvious, but it needs to be said: just because your friend’s child is addicted to their smartphone doesn’t mean it’s no biggie to get your child addicted. Just because your older teenager is addicted to his smartphone doesn’t mean it’s too late to protect your preteen.

But research also shows that when addictive behaviors are treated as taboo, addiction goes down.

That's what we need to be: a church where giving your kids smartphones is kind of weird.

No, I don’t want to shame or guilt people. I just want the norm to be digital sobriety amongst our teenagers, not digital addiction.

Here’s the good news: this is possible! Why? Two reasons: 

  1. We worship a king who commands us to protect children. 

Jesus said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

A millstone is a massive stone used to process grain. Jesus is saying it’s better to drown than make choices that harm children.

  1. We worship a king whose spirit empowers countercultural community.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t just change you. He’s at work to help us as a collective become a new kind of social order—one where wisdom reigns and children are protected from addictive substances.

If we collectively stand against the dangers of smartphones, it will be a witness to the wider world. The church is the one place with the supernatural power strong enough to resist Big Tech and it’s AI addiction programs.

There’s already a groundswell of Christian parents who commit together not to give their kids smartphones before ages 14 to 16. Even if you’ve already given your child a device and social media access, you can take the device back. Not because you’re ashamed, but because you have new information.

Every parent I know loves their children. Every parent I know wants what’s best for their children. If you’ve given your child a smartphone and social media as a preteen, it wasn’t because you wanted to harm them. It was because you probably didn’t realize how harmful it was.

But it’s not too late. It may be painful for you and your child to detox from social media and the device, but the long-term benefits outweigh the cost.

Common Questions and Pushback

I’ve talked with enough parents to know that what I wrote above will illicit some thoughtful pushback. I get it. I have all the same questions. So let me hit a few.

  1. This isn’t in the Bible, so you’re adding laws to the Bible. 

To be clear, I have yet to say, “It’s a sin to give your kid a smartphone.” It may be, but that’s up to the judge of heaven and earth to decide. That said, it’s worth pointing out that there are no verses in the Bible prohibiting you from giving cigarettes or alcohol to children. Again, I don’t know if I’d call those sins (though I suspect they might be), but I would say they’re incredibly unwise.

Likewise, choosing whether to supply our children digital dopamine is a wisdom issue. To be wise, we must consider the Bible’s whole counsel.

God’s word commands us to care for our bodies, which includes our brain development (1 Cor. 3:16-17). It warns us about overuse of addictive substances/behaviors (1 Cor. 6:12, Gal. 5:19-21). It commands us to protect children (Matt. 18:6). It tells us that children don’t know what’s best for themselves, which means parents must often say no (Prov. 22:6, 15). It warns us about wasting time on wasteful things (Eph. 5:16-17).

I could keep going, but here’s my main question: can you make a biblical case
positively that it’s wise to give your child an addictive device proven to cause mental health problems?

If you can’t, it may be God’s gentle way of nudging you to resist our culture’s norms by saying “no” to smartphones and social media.

  1. My kids will be left out at school. 

No parent wants their child to suffer exclusion. The idea that they’d be on the outside of a text chain and inside joke causes us pain because we know what it’s like to be left out.

But here’s the question you must ask:
Are you sure that’s something you want them to be included in? Would you want your kid included in afterschool smoking and drinking?

Again, all the research shows that using these devices makes kids feel more lonely, not more included. It may seem counterintuitive, but taking away the devices will force them to look up, make social skills, and be the sort of kid who actually knows how to amicably navigate the social world around him.

Your child likely lacks the wisdom to see long-term consequences. They only feel social pressure. Your job is to be the older, wiser one who sees the far-out horizons and makes choices they couldn’t make for themselves.

  1. What if there’s an emergency and my child needs me?

I understand this concern and I have two thoughts. First, what did you do when you were a teenager without a phone? You memorized phone numbers and found a phone to call during an emergency. Second, you can give your kids a dumbphone without a camera or internet access. Some even allow you to limit who they can text (which helps when it comes to bullying). Both solutions work well.

  1. I want to teach my kids how to use this technology while they’re still at home.

I understand this, which is why my recommendation is no earlier than 16. That said, you can tell your kid whatever you want about smartphone usage and police them as heavily as you desire—none of it matters if you’ve spent years showing them the opposite.

Modeling how to responsibly use a smartphone is far more important than giving your child a smartphone so you can watch them use it. My suspicion is that more of us parents are addicted to our phones than we’d like to admit. And I wonder if part of banning smartphones before a certain age ought to include personal reduction of smartphone use when we’re with our kids?

Here is my modest proposal for parents at The Crossing. Get together with your community and consider making an agreement to set new norms in your family and amongst your friends. This could include three commitments.

  1. Commit not to give smartphones or social media access to your children before 16.
  2. Commit to teaching your children why you’re not giving them access.
  3. Commit to limiting your own smartphone usage with your children to model proper smartphone use.

Consider this commitment not out of judgmentalism, guilt or shame, but as an act of love for Jesus and your children.

Making counter-cultural parenting decisions is easier alongside community. Here are four practices to keep you from drifting into isolation and invested in meaningful relationships.