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"No-One Wants To Be an iPad Kid" by CJ Fant

An Axis Course On The "Everything Smartphone" Guided Toolkit

When toddlers embrace tech, it’s teens who roll their eyes the hardest.

By CJ Fant

“We don’t want them to turn into iPad kids.”

Despite being tinged with sarcasm, the disdain in her voice was real. I was moderating a debate between a group of 11th graders about their fellow students being allowed to use AI in their school district. Despite opinions about AI still being unsettled, everyone in the group knew exactly what they thought of the “iPad Kid.” The way she said it made me laugh, but it also marked a shift in the group. To this teen, and her peers, turning into iPad kids would be a problem.

“iPad Kid” is a colloquial term that teens use to describe toddlers or elementary school-aged children who are so utterly consumed by their devices (i.e. an iPad) that they only seem to be happy if they have one in their hands. The kid who can’t sit still at Chick-fil-A unless they’re watching Bluey? iPad kid. The six-year-old asking if you have games on your phone as unwiped snot remains on their face? iPad kid.

When we hear about how teens react to these tech-addled toddlers, our instinct may be to quote old adages about rocks in glass houses or sentient pots speaking poorly about their kettle brethren. Yet, if we suspend judgment for a moment, we might just spy a glimpse of how teens think about their devices, and, more specifically, their smartphones.

They use them, they like using them, but they also understand some of the dangers of these powerful pocket rectangles, sometimes better than adults do.

This can create a disconnect between teens and their parents or the caring adults in their life. The continued conversation about smartphones, boundaries around them, and the ways they impact their and our lives is one of the most important conversations in the parenting or discipling journey. Yet, both sides often make assumptions about what the other group thinks.

I wanted to capture some of this complexity, so I sat down with some teens. I wanted to know how they saw their phones, the good and the bad. I wanted to know how their perspectives on phones diverged from their parents or the caring adults in their life—not to create division, but to enable a deeper, more mutual conversation. Lastly, I wanted to know why so many teens seem to hate “iPad kids” so much.

For most of human history, adults have looked at the upcoming generations with distrust and disdain, lamenting the ways they’re being corrupted by new technology and a shifting culture. But smartphones are different. Unlike the teens who rejected their parents’ hand-wringing about rock-and-roll, video games, or Dungeons and Dragons, when it comes to phones, many modern teens are standing alongside adults with their criticisms and fears.

Jonathan Haidt (not a teen) is a social psychologist and professor who is well-known, in part, for his analysis of how culture is shaping Gen Z. More recently, he’s become vocal about creating social and legislative restrictions around giving teens smartphones and social media access.

Haidt has said he was surprised at the lack of pushback he received from teens themselves when he started publishing his arguments, putting it this way in a 2023 post in his After Babel newsletter: “When I speak to high school and college audiences, I usually ask those who think I got the story wrong to raise their hands and then come forward and ask the first questions. I rarely get a hand raised or a critical question.”

What I found in my own conversations with students backed this up. While they quickly came to the defense of their fellow teens, they didn’t have much desire to defend smartphones. Yet, in true Axis fashion, I wanted to know both the bad and the good.

And the discussion around the good of smartphones generally landed in one of two places: utility and connection.

Most high schoolers can’t remember a time where you had to print out driving directions, but that doesn’t stop them from appreciating how miraculous the smartphone is in terms of utility.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that smartphones really are magical, 37-in-1 devices. It does everything from coordinating schedules, checking grades, managing their own calendar, listening to music, checking the weather, and, yes, pulling up directions. (Rest in peace MapQuest. 😔🙏)

Yet this talk of utility was quickly eclipsed by their desire to talk about connection.

The smartphone provides a tangible portal through which their social connections can grow, widen, and deepen. One student, as both a military kid and a missionary kid, talked about how her phone allowed her to stay in touch with friends who lived in different states and different countries. College students appreciated the way their phones kept them connected to their friends, families, and lives back home, even if this sometimes aggravated their homesickness.

Most notable, however, was the way the students saw their phones as a way to enable their embodied relationships, not necessarily replace them. They saw their phones as deepening connection, not diminishing or replacing it. At the same time, however, they spoke candidly and honestly about how these positives could quickly turn sour.

With utility comes reliance. With connection comes the pressure to be available. With an abundance of information comes the potential for endless distraction.

Even if it’s old news at this point, it’s worth reiterating: our phones are designed to distract us. Tristan Harris at the Center for Humane Technology has spoken at length about the ways smartphones’ visual design, user interface, and software have all been purpose-built to capture and hold our attention.

So avoiding distraction while using a phone is tantamount to standing in the rain and trying to not get wet. No one is immune to it, adults and teens alike. Picking up your phone to respond to a text from your mom could turn into doom-scrolling Instagram or TikTok for an hour. A well-timed, or maybe poorly-timed, notification from another app while checking your calendar for school could turn into a thirty minute rabbit trail of a distraction.

So it wasn’t surprising that every student was aware of the potential for distraction and spoke about a desire to resist it. They identified that they didn’t often feel like the choice to be distracted by their phones was a conscious one—something many adults can probably also identify with.

Some students had developed strategies to weaken or slow the distracting effect, to try to create friction between the transition of using their phone for utility to distraction. One student kept distracting apps uninstalled from her phone. Another student limited his social media use by keeping those apps on a tablet or laptop instead of a handheld device. Some mentioned trying to use the built-in screen time limitations on their phones, but these were often too easy to ignore to be truly effective. Still, there was a tangible desire from every young person we interviewed to feel more in control of their screen time and phone usage.

But truly limiting screen time is difficult for these teens, because it doesn’t solve the problem of others’ expectations. We live in a culture that presumes teens and adults will have access to smartphone technology at all times.

A study done by Pew Research found that, “Roughly three-quarters of teens say it often or sometimes makes them feel happy (74%) or peaceful (72%) when they don’t have their smartphone,” but also found that “teens say not having their phone at least sometimes makes them feel anxious (44%), upset (40%) and lonely (39%).”

At first glance, these numbers may seem to be oddly contradictory, but when taken all together, they actually make a lot of sense.

Not having access to the utility and connection smartphones provide can be stressful for teens, but having the option to disconnect can be reassuring for them.

One college student I talked with sounded exhausted as she detailed her morning routine of waking up and hopping on her phone, to respond to the thirty, forty, fifty or more text messages, Snapchats, and Instagram DMs she may have received within the last several hours. Sure, as adults, we can take the perspective that this is a prison of her choosing—but it’s also the cultural consequence of a decision her generation had no hand in choosing.

And this is where we have to address how parents sometimes contribute to this pressure to be always connected. A teen’s smartphone provides their parents with instant and ongoing access to them. This is an incredible evolution in parenting. In the 1980s, TVs would gently remind adults of the time and that they should probably check on their children. Now, with apps like Life360 and FindMy, those PSAs seem quaint.

These tracking apps can certainly be useful. They help parents encourage boundaries in life and friendships and romantic relationships. Tracking can help parents know if their kid is safe driving to work or school or sporting events.

Yet perhaps an unintended consequence is that teens feel like they need to be tied to their phones in order to reassure their parents. At no point in history have parents had as much access to their teens, and those teens feel the eyes of their parents constantly.

So it makes sense that teens might feel a complex, confusing, contradictory mixture of anxiety and peace when they set their phones down. Again, this is not to speak poorly about parents who are engaged with their teens’ lives. That’s wonderful! But sometimes it’s worth asking: are we allowing our teens moments of freedom to put down their phones and to disconnect?

Of course, the answer to this question depends on the teen and the situation, but now we need to return to our original topic: iPad Kids. If teens feel so inescapably tied to their smartphones, why do they feel such disdain for toddlers who are similarly tied-up by devices?

Maybe it’s because they see a little of themselves in the toddler staring slack-jawed and empty-eyed into Cocomelon or YouTube kids. Maybe in iPad Kids, they see a generation who is also growing up into a life dependent on smartphones and smart devices in a way that they, themselves, have come to resent.

Gen Alpha and younger might never experience a world without the allure of flickering screens and social media and influences. This frustrates teens, and rightfully so. These are teens who know the good sides and the bad sides of the technology; who were the first generation of children to really understand the addictive nature of the smartphone; who simultaneously feel inexplicably tied to their devices but also desire freedom from them.

Maybe they see iPad kids and grieve for them—and also, for themselves.

CJ Fant is a writer, video producer, and semi-regular podcast host at Axis. He’s worked with teens for his entire professional career and has a deep desire to bridge the gaps between generations to kickstart discipleship and inspire a deeper love for Jesus. He also loves keeping up with the ever-changing landscape of culture, with a particular focus on music and video games. CJ is also rapidly approaching 3000 hours played in Dota 2.