Is Giving a Child a Smart Phone Smart? Facts to Consider8 min read

The first cellular phone became available to the public in 1984. By 2007 Apple had made the Apple iPhone, which has since taken the cellular phone world by storm. In 23 short years, society went from brick-sized phones to handheld computers. Today, smart phones are everywhere. Even many of the tribal people in Africa now carry smart phones. It’s not rare to see a tribal warrior with a spear in one hand and a smart phone in the other.

Recently, I was speaking with a gentleman about our family’s choice to only have one cellular phone for our children to share. The phone belongs to Mom and Dad, and the children can use it when they leave the home to babysit, work, or when they simply drive some place. But it’s a “dumb phone” with no data. It only has the capability to make calls and send a text message. Upon hearing about our family’s phone policy for our youth, the man I was talking to said, “Oh come on! It’s 2016. How are your children going to even be able to function as adults if they don’t learn how to use a smart phone?”

This was not the first time I had heard this kind of statement. Every time I hear it I find myself pondering on the assumption that a child has to be connected to digital devices such as computers, tablets and phones regularly in order to “function as adults” one day. The more I think about that assumption the more I’m convinced it’s false.

Some Facts to Consider

A team of researchers at the University of Iowa concluded that 50% of toddlers 12-17 months old can master the use of a tablet, while 90% have mastery by age 2. I guess digital devices are child’s play. Surely if a baby can master a device at 1 or 2, than an 18 year old can learn to use a phone too.

MIT reported that a group of researchers wanted to know if an illiterate child could teach himself to read and how to use an iPad after just receiving it. The experiment worked. The researchers dropped off boxes of iPads for children in a village that doesn’t even get goods with printed labels on them. The children couldn’t read at all. They taught a few village adults how to use the iPads in case anyone needed help, and then they just left the children alone with the boxes. The children learned how to open a box, start up the devices, access apps, and learned to navigate and read within a really short time. This experiment shows that not only do children learn foreign things like technology quickly, but they also learn reading quickly. Also the adults in the story who were not technologically literate were also quick learners.

If illiterate adults and children can master devices and reading on their own, then I suppose my children who know how to type papers on a computer, search for items safely online, and how to help me sort out problems with my own phone and its apps, are likely going to be just fine without owning their own devices until they reach adulthood.

Limits Combat Addiction

In a recent New York Post article, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras told of his experience trying to help children overcome digital addiction. He tells a story of a young boy who ended up in a “catatonic stupor” because of the game Minecraft. He cites the recent brain research that proves digital addiction elicits the same brain response as sex or heroine.

Dr. Kardaras says that a full brain detox and reset takes 4-6 weeks of no digital connection. This is hard in our digital world. Going to the store is going to put children in front of screens. They’re everywhere. And what about school? Schools are encouraging screens at younger and younger ages.

According to Dr. Kardaras, this is how to set limits and combat addiction.

  1. Have your children play real Lego, not Minecraft, and read real books and play real sports with real people like friends and family members.
  2. Have tech-free family time, like dinner time. Steve Jobs didn’t even use tech at the dinner table. In fact, tech gurus like Jobs have historically raised their children in a really low-tech environment and enrolled them in low-tech schools.
  3. Have open and honest conversation with your children about what technology does to a person, their brain and their relationships — if not governed properly.
  4. Help children develop purpose for their lives by encouraging creativity and connection with family members and friends.

    Finally, Dr. Kardaras warns parents not to set bad examples for their children by using technology too much themselves.

    Putting The Pressure On

    Just as more and more research is coming out that proves too much digital is not good for our brains and our relationships, the pressure to digitize everything is piled on parents and children. For instance, there is a national push to digitize education.

    Just this last year in my state a bill was proposed to have all classes taught on iPads. This program would give all children an iPad and turn the classroom teachers into tech support instead of teachers. The bill was shot down, but, according to the president of the Tooele County School Board, the concept is being experimented on in a couple a remote locations of my school district. This type of learning is called “one-to-one” education.

    How can parents monitor and keep their children safe from overexposure to digital devices when the schools are pushing them otherwise? Many parents naively assume schools know what’s best for children, and so might suppose that the technology is good for children, no matter the changes the child goes through. It is good to remember that “one in 10 people are predisposed toward addictive tendencies,” according to Dr. Kardaras.

    In the very near future, schools could be places where screens are teaching more than teachers are. This puts a lot of screen pressure on children and parents.

    Digital devices are also convenient for staying in touch with busy teenagers, so many youth and church group leaders are turning to digital means to communicate with their youth. In one church group in Tooele, Utah there is one child without a cell phone of his own. His youth leaders put their calendars and communications on Google for the group of youth, but this child doesn’t spend his days accessing Google so he’s out of the loop. When the youth talked to his young men’s leaders and asked them to help keep him in touch with them via phone calls or paper calendars, they declined the request and said his parents needed to get him a phone. In fact, the youth and his mother told me that the young man feels bullied by his church youth leaders to go digital and buy a phone just to stay in touch and to stop the negative comments about how he doesn’t have a phone. This is a lot of pressure to put on this boy and his family. This boy’s parents are very conscious of his need to stay addiction free. They’re choosing to have human connections instead of digital ones. The problem is the youth leaders are caught up the in the digital social norm and the conveniences of purely digital communications. They don’t want to budge for this young man.

    Pressures to go digital are everywhere. Schools are increasing pressure. Church groups and businesses are conducting their work digitally too. Even friends are online now. Many youth feel that they can’t have friends unless they’re on social media and play online games. If the youth don’t do these things, then they worry that they won’t have anything to talk about with their friends when they see them.

  5. What is a parent to do? Should we give children phones and tablets or not? Each family must decide for themselves. It is important enough that it should be a matter of study and prayer. The consciences of children will be molded by their experiences and the lessons they learn and the people they know. This means the games, apps, websites and social networks will all help form the consciences of children. What will you do? How will you prepare your family?

    Part of discussing why your family is making certain choices should include a discussion regarding what a digital device really is. Digital devices are tools, not toys. If family members are taught how to use them like tools and respect them like they would respect a power saw or matches, then their ability to keep a healthy disconnection will improve.

    We live in the age of technology, but that doesn’t change the recipe for a happy life. Happy people have strong bonds and feel understood by family members and peers, and they know what their purpose in life is. Happy people will continually progress toward becoming the person they need to become to fulfill that purpose.

    For other ways to improve your parent/child connection and communication, visit


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