why your teenager might actually be happier without a smartphone

  • Jun 13, 2015

 

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Darling Hansie just texted me from his cousin Lizzy’s phone during their senior trip to San Diego, “Hey this is Hans. I went surfing with my phone. It might survive, but probably not. I’m so sorry.”

I read his text, laughed out loud and went to ebay where I quickly found a replacement. His sturdy red phone served him well for three years and $16.73 to replace it felt perfectly reasonable. Our AT&T store doesn’t even sell basic phones anymore– we’re starting to feel like rebels.

A handful of kids we know are still hanging on to the old phones. Most of them own the same model– a little LG slider. It’s a better phone than you might think. It receives texts, calls and even photos (as long as it’s not a group text)  just like it’s fancier cousins; it also holds lists and a handy little calendar where Hansie notes every appointment and assignment, game and party in his impossibly busy life. As a bonus, those phones are practically indestructible. The screens never break, they can be dropped repeatedly and even submerged in water– just not for quite that long.

Trust me, I don’t think you’re a bad parent if you buy your kid an iPhone. You’re not a bad kid if you’re using one. Some of my favorite teenagers on earth own smartphones and use them responsibly– Abby, Lizzy, Jake, Sam, Claire, Chet, Louisa, Ezra… But honestly, I they’re a rare breed; these kids have tremendous impulse control and extraordinary parents. I think if everyone at my house had iPhones and iPads and iTouches and iEverything, I’d be constantly scolding and monitoring and sending them outside to play. I think we’d talk less, read fewer books and spend too much time watching other people’s lives.

My kids will tell you we’re not strict parents and we have far more laughter than rules at our house. You might think Hans and Xander are constantly begging for an upgrade from their basic LG phones, instead, they thank us over and over for their little red phones. Why? They’ve seen too many kids lose themselves to their phones. Friends who used to talk and throw a Frisbee during the lunch hour are now obsessed with their Twitter feed and how many likes they’ve received on Instagram.

People seem to think we’re extremists when they hear my kids don’t own any devices beyond basic phones. In truth, we still spend too much time looking at screens. Thanks, or no thanks, to Amazon and Netflix, my younger kids have read fewer books and seen far more movies and television shows than their older siblings. Mary can quote from a dozen Studio C skits while Xander can give you a rundown on all the best TED talks and YouTube science programs. They’ve all spent hours and hours on Khan Academy learning math and computer programming. Xander, Hans, Mary and Gabe regularly grab my phone to check Instagram, play Angry Birds or study French and German on Duolingo. And you know what? One smartphone is enough for the five of us.

As much as possible, I want to gift my younger kids with the creative, active life I provided for their siblings. And they agree. Maybe it’s because we know ourselves? Our family trees on both sides are full of alcoholics and philanderers. We know we are prone to addictions; we know we need to be careful. Just yesterday, Stefan and I talked about the day several years ago when he asked if we could buy Skyrim, a game he’d heard about from many of his friends in high school. We looked up the game together and the moment we saw it was rated M for Mature we both said “never mind.” I didn’t think much about it at the time, but Stefan said he’s been grateful many, many times since. “I could have lost myself to that game. I’ve seen it happen to so many people.”

Even Mary, with her happy life of ballet and baking, cello and sewing and swimming, knows she need to limit her time on Instagram. If she looks at it daily, she starts to feel like the only little girl in Utah who hasn’t eaten lunch at an American Girl Doll Store. Let’s face it, don’t we all suffer from a bit of Instagram envy from time to time? A fair amount of high schoolers can handle a smartphone’s constant access to social media etc, but those venues can be especially dangerous for younger kids.

Why, during the most vulnerable, insecure years of our children’s lives, would we put a device in their hand that allows them to compare themselves to everyone else nearly every minute of the day? Thanks to social media, kids can see every party they weren’t invited to, every girl who racks up 500 likes on her selfie.  I’d rather let my kids remain blissfully unaware of the latest swimsuit pic and rocking party.  I follow several of my kids friends on Instagram and even more of them follow my feed. While most of the older teens offer happy, interesting updates, the majority of younger kids (with a few lovely exceptions) seem to be screaming, “like me, like me, like me!” I’ll give a kid a few chances– but after I’ve seen a fifth grader post several provocative selfies or a 12 year old repeatedly post crude gestures and “my friends are cooler than yours” photos– I unfollow them because A. it makes me sad and B. I don’t want to be judgmental. When I see those kids in person, I want to love them as complicated and extraordinary human beings and not recall their last stupid photo.

Gabe tells me several of his classmates talk about the latest Instagram or snapchat or Twitter post all day long. I know his lack of a phone leaves him out of the loop, but it’s a loop he’s glad to be out of. He spends plenty of time with friends who appreciate him simply for himself and he’s too happy to worry about how other kids spent their weekend. Besides, studies confirm, kids who are socially precocious at 13, deal with serious consequences later . That pattern has held true for every one of my children– they aren’t the cool kids in junior high, but the interpersonal skills they develop at home and with trusted friends pay off in high school.

It’s hard enough for adults to manage a smartphone, but for kids with developing brains, those constant distractions can be dangerous. One child might be ready to own a smartphone at sixteen, but will his younger sibling have the same impulse control at that age? It’s easier to make a rule for the entire family rather than make one child feel singled out.

Our friend’s son recently confessed a pornography addiction to his parents. Since he was primarily accessing porn on his phone, the boy willingly relinquished his iPhone to his parents. But when he switched to a basic phone he received a barrage of questions, “Why are your parents punishing you?” “What happened?” His mother told me she desperately wishes she’d never given him a smartphone in the first place. In this boy’s case he might have avoided a pornography addiction, but for many other kids, holding off on buying a smartphone might help them concentrate on schoolwork, improve face to face social skills, or simply make better use of time.

I hear about all kinds of complex guidelines parents set up for smartphones and their use can be huge source of contention for some families. You just don’t need very many rules for a dumb phone. Yes, phones should be put away while driving, during dinner and after bedtime. But in general, responding to texts and calls, doesn’t cause much family friction. I’m sure many parents are experts at monitoring phone use and disciplining with love and wisdom, but for our family, it’s easier to just have one less thing to worry about. Fewer rules equal fewer fights.

Sure, you can block websites and even the internet on a smartphone, but people can text pornographic images to your child any time. My boys are often involved in group texts with dozens of people. Images are sent during those conversations, but their dumb phone translates it into a web link (which they could look up but they never bother). Many times, someone sends a shocking image during a group text. This just happened in a group text with over 200 kids at Skyline while planning a senior prank. One kid posted the sort of selfie no one wanted to see. For the kids with smartphones, the image popped right up, but the kids with basic phones only saw a random web link. Also, kids with basic phones are simply putting less of their life on the internet and that lack of sharing protects them.

And don’t we all wonder about the money? Even with fabulous deals and usage plans, those phones must be a financial burden for a lot of kids and parents. I know many teenagers pay for their own phone and usage. While learning to work is good, taking on too many monetary responsibilities as a teenager detracts from their education and personal development. It reminds me of our friend who desperately wanted a nice car in high school and worked so many hours to earn that car he didn’t have the grades to get into college.

Basic phones (about $50 new and $9 a month usage fees) reduce financial stress for teens and their parents. My reaction to Hansie’s drowned phone wouldn’t have been quite as carefree if he’d ruined or cracked the screen of a $300 phone. We’d have to set up some sort of plan where he paid half or all of the replacement costs—it would be an “issue.”

As I said before, I promise, I’m not judging anyone who hands their kids the latest iPhone. Several of my favorite teens carry one in their pocket. But if you buy your teen a little red flip phone, I promise they won’t be alone. And they’ll probably thank you for it.

June 11, 2015

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17 Comments

  1. Reply

    Adri

    June 13, 2015

    thanks, Michelle, for always sharing your parenting insights, I really appreciate it! My kids are just starting to ask for a phone, and we have been weighing options, so having your input is invaluable! Keep sharing!!

  2. Reply

    kirsten

    June 15, 2015

    Thank you for being a ‘thinking’ mom and considering choices for your children rather than a ‘do what everyone else is doing’ kind of mom.
    That’s part of our job as mothers!

    (My 15yo has a flip phone. she’s the only kid i know without a smart phone. I think she probably gets teased a little, but she is cool with it.

    I don’t have a smart phone either (though my ipad comes with me everywhere anyway) and it’s hard to find good ‘dumb’ phones anymore! when i got a new one last year, it was SO much harder to use/less intuitive than my older one. They’re doing that on purpose to get us to use smart phones, I fear. )

  3. Reply

    Michelle

    June 16, 2015

    I’m about as passionate about the plusses of technology as anyone around (and I’m talking about the positives in the lives of the rising generation, not just in general), but my kids don’t have smart phones and I don’t regret it.

    My two cents on parental controls, etc. — it’s a losing battle, folks. Kids HAVE to learn to be internally driven and self-monitoring. Filters are great for protecting against accidental exposure, but I promise that whatever controls you can find, there is an app or something that will work around it.

    But I do think that when kids experience positives with tech (using it for good, to learn, to really be connected with family (think video with Grandma and Mother’s Day with a missionary) AND what it feels like to be unplugged from tech, they will be better able to make wise decisions as they grow.

    Michelle, speaking of positive ways for youth to use tech, take a look at this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bemDf6wuHJ0 (One warning about the documentary itself…one senior mentioned watching 50 shades. Really bummed about that. The principle of the project, though, and the stories and connections and what the youth and seniors experienced is very touching.)

    • Reply

      Michelle

      June 24, 2015

      I came back and read my comment and it didn’t come across very well. Sorry.

      My son and I had a conversation about this the other day. One of the things we talked about is how I have been a little conflicted along the way because I didn’t want my kids not to build skill sets that I think will be important for living in a digital world. What I have realized is that they are surrounded enough by tech with the devices we do have (computers, Kindles, and music apps, for example) and via friends that they are definitely building knowledge.

      My son also made a simple comment — that he learns more about tech by reading the Wall Street Journal and other news than he would by wasting a lot of time on a smartphone. He also noted that he thinks his generation will likely not be able to fall behind in terms of tech in the same way that our generation has, because they have grown up with it. I thought that was an interesting perspective.

      Because I’ve been heavily involved in the social media world (online missionary work and community/network building), it’s odd in a way that my kids don’t do social media. What I have said to them is that if they could ever come up with a proactive plan for how and why they’d use social media, they could possibly have an account. None of them have felt like they could propose enough value-added to merit an account. And more than once, they have been grateful that they don’t have them.

      When it comes time to use devices as missionaries, though, I hope that that won’t be a mistake. Because that is the way of the future, and there is much about that that is so, so exciting to me.

      • Reply

        mlehnardt8@msn.com

        June 26, 2015

        I loved your first comment and I love this one too. Yes, some people do argue that kids will fall behind without a smartphone, but like you, I think the devices we do have teach them more than enough. Kids learn programming on a computer, not a smartphone.

  4. Reply

    Louise

    June 16, 2015

    I wish our church leaders (local and general) wouldn’t encourage/pressure our youth (and adults) to have smartphones! My children are asked to bring their devices to class each week to access the curriculum. For the “Face to Face” firesides, they are asked to submit questions via Instagram, etc. The missionaries in our area carry nothing but an ipad. And the only way for me (without a device) to read each week’s lesson is to sit at the computer.

    • Reply

      mlehnardt8@msn.com

      June 16, 2015

      I agree Louise!

  5. Reply

    Andrea

    June 16, 2015

    My almost 14 year old still doesn’t have a phone of any kind because I find smart phones in the hands of a teenage boy terrifying! I think I will pull my old flip phone out for his birthday. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled, LOL. But seriously, thank you for this. I love your arguments and love that your kids are on board. You are a great mom–I am always happy to take your advice! (P.S.–who is your cell provider? I took my flip phone into Verizon here and they said it would cost the same to activate it as it would to add my son with a smartphone. I DON’T want a smartphone and I certainly prefer not to pay for one I don’t have!)

    • Reply

      mlehnardt8@msn.com

      June 16, 2015

      Andrea– your words mean a lot to me. Thank you. We use AT&T. love love love you.

    • Reply

      Blue

      June 19, 2015

      Andrea, Activating a cell is a one-time thing–essentially the fee for getting it up and running, and I’m not surprised that it’s the same cost. The difference is that smart phones cost $10 a month more than flip phones. At least that’s the case with my plan at Verizon.

    • Reply

      Daniel

      January 13, 2016

      Where I live I am 14 and the only person I know without a smartphone. I get made fun of so I don’t bring my dumb phone to school. My teachers tell the class “pull out your phones” and search various things. This happens once a day at least. I sit there awkwardly, not being able to participate. This is PUBLIC SCHOOL and they know basically everyone has a smartphone, even expecting it. Also, for example, at sporting events, I am in the student section and I feel that my phone vibrates. I go to the bathroom to text back my parents to spare myself the humiliation. It’s not that bad, but if you can, your son would be happier with a smartphone. Even limit him to only using it like 1 hour a day as long as he has it at school. Unless of course at his school kids don’t have smartphones, then everything I said is basically irrelevant

      • Reply

        mlehnardt8@msn.com

        January 17, 2016

        I’m so sorry Daniel. It sounds like you have it rough. Thankfully, there are enough kids in our school who still have dumb phones that it’s not embarrassing.

  6. Reply

    Laurel C.

    June 20, 2015

    This is good advice for adults, too! I think I’m the only 40-something walking the earth to whom you cannot text a message. I have a “dumb phone” and don’t plan on upgrading. There’s something liberating about not being constantly on-call and tethered to a device 24/7.

    And I agree with Louise above me… I wish our church wasn’t going so much toward the digital for curriculum. Phones are distracting for youth during church (and adults, too!). Even in my elementary school, devices are being pushed way too much for my comfort level. My kids are being taught to be plugged in all the time. I have to counteract this mentality at home, and it’s feeling like an uphill battle. Thank you for these words!

  7. Reply

    Nancy

    May 19, 2017

    I realize this is an old post, but hope you might find a second to respond to this. I have practically 100 kids (haha, not quite, but almost!) and with our oldest at 15 and 16, we have just been navigating this stuff in recent years. We err on the side of caution and have felt pretty good about how we are arranging things and hope it will start a pattern that will work with all our kids (though heaven knows technology will evolve and we’ll have to as well). Anyway, the oldest have old iPhones — which are great because they can text and happily use emojis and even have the gospel library app, but we have the phones locked down so there is no internet access, App Store access, etc. And at home we only use computers in the main family area and only when we (mom or dad) are home. It’s worked pretty well so far. My fear lies in how they transition eventually to having all the control. You’ve seen kids through this. I mean obviously it isn’t right that we govern them indefinitely (nor do I want to! I’ll be thrilled when the responsibility is fully their own), but do you stand your kids off to college with a laptop? When they are out of school and have their own job is it just — get your own cell phone plan and good luck? I feel we are providing them a degree of safety to grow and learn and hopefully develop strong inner filters by using precautions here, but I don’t see my way through the next few years as they leave high school, etc. Sitting alone and homesick in a dorm room with sudden access to everything a laptop and wifi or their own phone provides makes me fear that all our help will have been for not. Any thoughts?

    • Reply

      mlehnardt8@msn.com

      May 21, 2017

      Oh that’s such a good question, Nancy. You raise some really good points. And it sounds like what you are doing now is really working. For us, the hope is that once they’ve gone to college (with a laptop and a cell phone) they will have so many other interests they will know how to use their time wisely and how to use technology wisely. It’s worked for my two oldest boys. All my kids have really internalized that they don’t want to get pulled into the electronic world too much (though we certainly use our computers and our cell phones A LOT). It’s complicated stuff, so I’m going to cover your questions in one of my first podcasts (once I get brave enough to start!). xoxo

  8. Reply

    Nancy

    May 22, 2017

    Oh thank you! I would love that. Maybe your boys will have insights on how they transitioned to full control that I can share with my oldest kids.

    • Reply

      mlehnardt8@msn.com

      May 23, 2017

      I’ll be sure to ask them about that!

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