One of the most common questions I get from parents is “when is my kid old enough to have a cellphone?” or some other digital device. Closely associated with it is, “when is he or she old enough to have a social media account?” The fact a parent is even asking this question is a good sign, because it implies a level of intentionality in his or her parenting. So, kudos to anyone who asks the question. Some of the principles here can also apply to many other things we give our kids, like cars, or televisions, or cosmetics, for girls.
As far as digital devices are concerned, in my mind, the worst answer to the question is “when the other kids his or her age have one.” That’s a bad idea, because it assumes that: a) the parents of those kids made intentional, prayerful decisions about their kids having digital devices or social media (maybe so, maybe not), and b) that their reasons are your reasons. This is pretty obvious, but no one would see a group of toddlers playing on the Loop and think, “oh, it must be okay for little kids to play on the Loop now,” then send one’s kid out there. But, if we give no more forethought to a decision that has the potential to be as dangerous to a kid’s mental and emotional safety as one that is dangerous to a kid’s physical safety, are we any less culpable?
If “because everyone else’s kid has one” is a bad reason, what are some good ones? Bottom line: you’ve got to be intentional. “Intentional” means “prayerful and thoughtful,” not “rationalizing.” Anyone can rationalize any decision to find the path of least resistance. So, here are some (but, not all) reasons that might be intentional ones:
Your child is mature enough. We have had to unwind complex absolute social media and texting train wrecks among kids and, unfortunately, parents up here at school that originated from the simple fact that the kids at issue were too young to have digital devices. If a kid doesn’t know how to handle complex social situations, reflect kindness in their conversations, and understand that their identity is in Christ and not in what Friend #1 is doing with Friend #2 this weekend, they’re probably not ready for unguarded, unfettered digital or social media access. Think about how you feel when your friend talks about how she’s just chillin’ with her perfect husband on their perfect back deck watching a perfect sunset after she’s just cooked a meal that you’d have to drive to Dallas or Houston to get? Forget that she’s probably completely puffing, and that she just had a knock down drag out argument with her perfect husband three minutes after that post: how does it make you feel? Left out? Robbed of joy? It’s the same thing with your kids, but they’re probably a lot less capable to handle it than you.
Have you loved your kids well? Have you taught them that their identity is in Christ? Have you reminded them that social media is largely, as David Brooks says, “other people’s highlight reels,” and shouldn’t be taken too seriously? Are you ready to stalk them, with their full knowledge, so they’ll know they’re accountable to you and you can walk through things with them? Some of my friends have found these things helpful.
It serves you. If you have a job that requires you to be away from your kids, or they’ve begun activities where they have to be in a position to get hold of you, this might be a time when digital devices can help. Even then, however, you can get the right tool for the job. You don’t hammer a nail with a screwdriver, or use a $10,000 supercomputer to watch Netflix. If you need something for your kids to contact you, and that’s it, but the answer to the other questions above is “they’re not ready,” there are technologies out there that will just give them the ability to contact you. Go retro, baby! Nokia still makes them!
You are using access to digital devices to teach something else. Some of my friends are using digital devices to teach about sex. Does that sound crazy? Not so much. In our instant gratification society, where everything is one click away, it’s not a horrible thing to teach kids that some of the really best things in life are worth the wait. Do you ever wonder why God doesn’t answer your prayer the minute you pray it? Especially when He promises that He will answer those prayers prayed in righteousness? Most of the time, when God answers my prayers too quickly, I tend to take credit for it. It tends not to mean as much to me. I lose my gratefulness. God develops patience in me by making me persevere in prayer: to ask repeatedly and hope enduringly. When He finally does answer, as Mark Batteson says, it maximizes His glory. I rejoice in His good gift. I am elated. I appreciate it so much more. And, I’m more likely to be patient the next time. If you’re using access to digital devices or social media to help your kids learn to trust your goodness and have greater patience, so they’ll then make that connection to the Lord and their prayers (with some help and teaching from you), that’s a great reason to intentionally consider when you’ll give them access.
Lastly, what if I’ve already blown it? What if you’re thinking, “This was one of my non-stellar parent moments, and I already gave it to them when I probably shouldn’t have?” You can always take it back, and admit you messed up. No fun, but it teaches them that you also are human and saved by grace, not by your awesomeness (which they know, anyway). I get it if you don’t feel like you can do that, however- what you can do is put very reasonable limits on its use: when, where, what hours, what part of your house, how you monitor it, conversations concerning its use, and the like. Use it as a teaching tool, and you can make an unintentional decision an intentional one.
There are many more reasons why one would want to delay or clearly define access to digital technology to social media. Like we say around here, technology is a creational good, given by God, like a hammer. But, a hammer can be used to build, or to kill. The point is intentionality, not parenting by default. This is one of those many things we often try to fix on our own, instead of praying for God’s guidance first. Intentionality means that different kids will get these things at different times. That’s okay; I don’t raise that other guy’s kid- I raise the one God gave me. He wants to direct us in these things, if we’ll just let Him.