“Can I have a smartphone?” “Just one more hour of Fortnite?” “Why can’t I be on Instagram?”

If you haven’t fielded these questions from your kids yet, you’ll hear them soon enough. And part of what it means to parent strategically is making a plan for how you’ll answer.

So let’s start with the pros and cons. Pros: Our kids want community and connection—that’s part of how God designed people. And in their purest forms, smartphones and social media can help create community and connect people.

As dads, we want our kids to be able to talk with their friends, and we want them to be able to contact us if something is wrong. We want to make our kids happy, and there are a lot of apps out there designed to make us feel happy.

But that immediate rush of happiness has been carefully engineered, and its goal is not to make our kids healthier or safer. It’s designed to grab hold of their attention. In a 60 Minutes interview, Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, explains it this way:

There’s a narrative that, “Oh, I guess they’re just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone,” but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive. That was not true in the 1970s.

That carefully designed persuasion of screen time—the convenience, the excitement, the entertainment—can distract us from how our screens are shaping us in the long run. A month-long study at the University of Pennsylvania found that, when college students limited their time on social media to 30 minutes a day, they felt significantly less depressed and lonely. If this is how social media affects college students, how much more will it affect teenagers and kids?

In his TED Talk last December, Collin Kartchner spoke about asking 500 middle schoolers to complete this sentence: “One thing my parents don’t know about social media is …”

Here’s a sample of what they had to say:

“… It’s just a fun way to talk to my friends.”
“… How much I love it and hate it at the same time.”
“… That they’re blocked.”
“… How addictive and awful it is.”
“… It makes me very very very insecure.”
“… Social media puts pressure on me to be perfect.”
“… It nearly ended my life.”

It’s not just social media—across the board, screen time comes with long-term costs. According to another 60 Minutes interview with NIH researchers, kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens get lower scores on thinking and language tests.

What Dads Need to Know

Our kids don’t always realize how social media and screen time affect them. Often, they just don’t care about a long-term cost when there’s an immediate reward every time they pick up their phones. As the grown-ups, we need to step up and help our children protect themselves.

Across the country, parents are doing exactly that—with the strongest resistance to technology showing up in tech hubs like Silicon Valley. The New York Times recently interviewed parents in Silicon Valley, where they found that the people who create our apps and devices tend to be extremely cautious about letting their own kids use screens.

Former Wired editor Chris Anderson described screens this way: “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.” For his 5 kids, phones aren’t an option until the summer before high school, no screens are allowed in bedrooms, and he manages his kids’ screen time schedules from his phone.

And this isn’t new. Steve Jobs limited his kids’ use of technology, and Bill Gates didn’t give his kids phones until they hit their teens.

We’re all trying to figure out the right thing for our children. How much technology is helpful? How much is too much?

We can’t answer those questions for you, because we don’t know your family. We don’t know how mature your children are, how they respond to screen time, or how sensitive they are to certain kinds of content.

If you are parenting with your wife, make sure you talk through these questions with her. She’s your best teammate in these tough decisions, and your agreed-upon plan will give your kids a much clearer answer than hearing different rules from different parents.

We can’t answer these questions for you, but we can tell you that, the more technology is in our homes, the more we need to be involved in helping our children use that technology safely and wisely. When we decide to give our children technology, we must be willing to step up and get involved. Here are a few ways to do that:

Say No for Now

For some seasons or some situations, we just need to say no. And that’s okay, even if that makes your child different from the kids on her soccer team or in his class.

You are free to do what is best for your kid and for your family—you don’t have to parrot the choices of your neighbors, your friends, or your kids’ friends. The choice is yours—and the potential costs are too high to let your decisions be made by others.

Here’s another story Collin Kartchner shares in his TED Talk, a message he received from a teenage girl:

I got a phone when I was 11 and got social media right then. How crazy is that?! Everything evil was at my fingertips … accounts on my feed that promoted pornography, self-harm, anorexia … I was hooked.

I wish my parents would have monitored my phone when I was young and saved me from that darkness. I dealt with suicide attempts, self-harm, anorexia, hospital visits, countless therapy, addiction. It took away my innocence and taught me to hate who I am.

Once you give your children access to the internet or social media, you can’t always stop where that access will take your children or how what your children see will affect them. Until your children are ready to learn how to navigate the internet, it’s okay to keep them offline.

Sometimes, the websites say no for us. At the time this article was written, all of the following websites required you to be at least 13 to create an account:

This isn’t an exhaustive list, just a preview of some of the major platforms. If your child wants to create an account on a platform or start using a new website, you may want to first check whether the platform allows kids their age.

However, social media platforms and websites profit from more users, not from the healthy psychological development of their users, so they are not always going to be looking out for your kids’ best interest. Even if your child is technically old enough to use a site, you can always choose to wait a little longer.

Sometimes, we need people alongside us to help us determine and stick with our boundaries. There are several communities and organizations focused on encouraging one another to take specific steps to delay technology in the lives of children. For example, the Wait Until 8th campaign is run by a team of parents, doctors, psychologists, teachers, authors, researchers, lawyers, and business people, working together to “let kids be kids a little longer.” They are joined by people from all across America committed to protecting their children from smartphones until at least 8th grade.   

Monitor Their Screen Time

Of course, we can only protect for so long. At some point, our children will need phones and other devices. They will turn 16 and start driving. They will become adults, move out, and make their own choices about technology.

It’s 2019—a lot of life happens online. When our children move into adulthood, they’ll be tossed into the deep end of the internet. Before they get there, how do we create kiddie pools and teach them how to swim? In other words, how do we give them the right amount of freedom to make wise decisions without overwhelming them with bad options?

As parents, we have the opportunity to monitor and shape what our children are accessing on their devices. To help you do this, here are several different systems created to help parents:

  • Circle is produced by Disney and is a tool that allows parents to set personalized limits on each person in the family, restricting the sites they visit based on their age. It allows a parent to shut off the internet entirely at different times, as well as set time limits for different people in the family. Circle can also be used to set limits for devices. This means it can set limits on a personal device like one child’s phone, or it can set limits on a device for the whole family like a gaming system.
  • Bark is an all-encompassing application. It scans your child’s social media pages as well as all of their texts, messaging apps, and other forms of communication.
  • Xbox is equipped with the ability to establish parental controls within the system. There are also websites dedicated to explaining how to set up these parental controls on Xbox, such as this one.

Here’s something you can do right now: Go into your phone settings and set up restrictions for your family. There are easy methods to do this for both Androids and iPhones.

If your child has an iPhone, you can also check where the battery life of the phone has been used up all day and over the week. This can help you find where your teen might be pulled into a vortex of online content. When teens can access bad stuff through almost any app, just restricting a few apps can feel like playing Whac-a-Mole. But watching battery life can show you if your son is suddenly spending 2 hours a day on deleted apps or on an app that doesn’t make sense—and then you can start a conversation and see what’s going on. Here are some instructions for checking their battery life.

The Ultimate Solution: Love

God made us for relationships—for a relationship with him and for relationships with each other. Besides their relationship with God, children’s most important relationships are with their parents.

Used well, the gift of technology should enhance your relationship with your child. But if we separate technology from real people and relationships, it loses its value. Now that technology is so pervasive, people are starting to realize how much technology cannot provide. In fact, among the wealthy, human contact is the new luxury good, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Our screens are nothing more than a tool, similar to a pencil. They help us with specific tasks, like connecting with a far-away friend, collaborating with teammates, or checking the weather. But as we rely on our devices to help us, we don’t want to become ruled by them.

Technology can become a tool that helps your child grow in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and with man (Luke 2:52). But for that to happen, we need to protect our kids from making too much of screens. The best way to keep screens from being the center of kids’ lives is to fill kids’ lives with real relationships—asking about their day, sharing projects and adventures, showing up for them, and enjoying time together.