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"The Five Conversations You Have To Have Before Handing Over That Smartphone" by Evan Barber

An Axis Course On The "Everything Smartphone" Guided Toolkit

How to lay the foundation before they open that shrink-wrapped box. 

By Evan Barber

The decision to give your child a smartphone is one that will change both of your lives.

As one mom named Sarah put it, “It’s such a small device, but it can have an impact on a life that is like a weapon of mass destruction. There’s this huge gamut of topics that parents have to think about, consider, study, worry about, and talk about.”

So what exactly are those topics? Here are five conversations we believe parents have to have before getting their teens a smartphone.

Conversation #1: Who pays for it?

A new smartphone can cost around $1,000—and the newest, biggest, baddest models can cost almost double that. Add to that the cost of the monthly phone plan, in-app purchases, and any repairs that need to happen, and for most of us, this will feel like a significant investment. Who foots the bill?

There are a couple of ways parents can think about this. If you are the one making the purchase, then this smartphone is actually your device that your son or daughter gets to steward. This means they don’t get to set the rules for how it gets used. Perhaps part of their stewardship also means that if they throw it against the wall and the screen cracks, it’s up to them to pay for the repairs.

Some parents may require their teen to save up over time to purchase their own smartphone—and there’s nothing like having to pay for something yourself to encourage you to take care of it. But the truth is, even if your son or daughter saves up their own money and pays for it, you’re still their parent. They might own the phone on paper, but you still get to determine what kind of behavior you will accept under your roof.

Many parents hand one of their own phones down to their teens as a way to avoid splashing out a lot of money. In this case, a conversation will still need to happen about who pays for the monthly service plan and other incidentals.

However you want to frame this, agreeing in advance on who pays for the phone itself, who pays for the monthly phone plan, who pays for insurance, who pays for in-app purchases, and who pays for repairs is important.

Conversation #2: When and where can this phone be used?

As the parent, you have the right (and some would say responsibility) to set significant boundaries around the who, what, when, where, and why of device use. These restrictions and boundaries should be agreed upon before your child powers on the phone they will use, and include clear answers to these questions:

  • What parts of the house are phones allowed in? (Just the main floor? What about bedrooms and bathrooms?)
  • Where will phones charge? (In shared spaces, like the kitchen or living room? In more private areas, like a home office?)
  • What time of day and night will your teens be expected to turn their phones off? (Should all family devices get “put to bed” and in charging stations at the same time?)
  • What apps will your teens be allowed to have? (Will the App Store be disabled? What about social media, and internet browsers? Will they have to explain new apps to you before you let them download them?) Will this change over time?
  • How much time each day will they be allowed to use those apps? (Will you set up App Limits so they’re automatically disabled after that time is reached?) Will this change over time?
  • Will you have access to their passwords? How often will you ask to check their phone?
  • Will phones be allowed at the table during meals?
  • What are your expectations for phone use during school? How does that align with the school’s policies and expectations? Could that change based on grades/academic performance?
  • Will you track their location? If so, how long will you do this?
  • How quickly do you expect your teen to respond to you when you text or call? Will you require a “check-in” text when teens arrive at a destination?

We encourage you to come up with clear agreements for each of your rules and decide what the consequences will be if they are broken—as well as potentially what the rewards will be for following them.

We also encourage you to lay out a plan for phasing out some of these restrictions, if you would like to do so.

Conversation #3: How do we know who to trust online?

Equally as important as setting up expectations in your home is preparing your son or daughter to navigate the online world with discernment. Given that most social media platforms are technically supposed to be for kids 13 and up, any pre-teens on these apps have started their social media journey by lying about their age. The lack of effective age-verification on these platforms is just one example of how the internet makes it extremely easy for users to lie, misrepresent reality, and to (even unknowingly) amplify falsehoods. Equipping your son or daughter with a healthy degree of skepticism is crucial.

Just because an article includes the phrase “experts say” doesn’t make its conclusions true. Just because a post includes statistics doesn’t mean it represents the entire context of the story it’s telling. Just because a picture or video appears to be real doesn’t mean that it’s actually real.

In one episode of The Office, Michael Scott declared that, “Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject—so you know you are getting the best possible information.” This joke about Wikipedia might also be applied to the internet as a whole; though optimists once insisted that the internet was going to “democratize” information, giving everyone equal access to the world’s accumulated wisdom, what actually happened in many cases is that random, unqualified opinions were given the same platform as perspectives based in careful research and thought. And of course, just because someone is an expert in one subject matter doesn’t make them an expert on everything.

As generative AI becomes more sophisticated, it becomes harder to tell whether the images or videos we come across online actually represent reality. In some ways, this is an extension of how social media was already being used; most users intentionally curated which images or videos they uploaded of themselves to create a highly selective narrative of their lives. But generative AI takes this misrepresentation to a whole new level. A cottage industry of completely fabricated photos of public figures and regular folks has already taken hold—and for the most part, people don’t question what they see. To make matters worse, the deluge of infinite novelty designed to maximize “engagement” on most platforms actively discourages users from pausing long enough to consider whether something is fact, or fiction.

There is currently no actionable verification process to prevent a 40-year-old man from constructing an entire profile as if he were a 17-year-old girl; pictures can be easily stolen from a girl’s actual page, and a clever use of emojis and punctuation can make it seem like he’s her in DMs. We don’t need to spell out for you what happens when a lonely young man connects with a “girl” like this online, and eventually tries to meet in person.

The topic of media literacy is a broad one, but here are a few questions hopefully equip your son or daughter to be discerning around the reality (or unreality) of what they come across online:

  • How confident are you in your ability to tell whether online content is real?
  • Who or what is being left out of this story/post/argument?
  • How do you know a picture or video wasn’t significantly edited before it was uploaded?
  • Are there any signs that a picture or video was generated using AI (unnatural movements, weird text, etc.)?
  • What if the poster’s point of view is wrong?
  • Do you have any offline evidence that this person you met online is actually who they claim to be?
  • Who are the “experts” this article is referring to?
  • How does what you’re seeing online stack up against the revealed wisdom of God in Scripture?

Conversation #4: What do we avoid, and why?

Our friend Shelley at Pinwheel described the internet world as like going to see a well-made educational movie in a theater that’s next door to a combination strip club/casino/illegal dog fighting ring with a bouncer who is clearly ignoring IDs. The internet gives us access to everything.

The idea that there are pro-suicide, pro-self-harm groups on social media may sound like a fearmongering conspiracy—but many such groups exist. Some of these are networks of broken people addicted to self-harm, or who see suicide as a way to gain agency; others are groups which, often by flattering vulnerable young men and women into sending nude or sexualized photos, then blackmail them into doing documenting more and more depraved acts, sometimes culminating in suicide or self-harm.

As has been said many times, the bullies of previous generations typically stayed at school—today, someone who wishes someone else harm has 24/7 access to that person on social media. On the flipside, other groups online may promise undying love and friendship—if only your son or daughter will reject their biology and/or declare an attraction to the same sex. We were made for a sense of community and belonging, so relational forces like these can have powerful effects on teens’ behavior.

There’s also the matter of pornography and other sexualized content. Author and apologist Josh McDowell said that pornography was “probably the greatest problem or threat to the Christian faith in the history of the world.” While that may sound dramatic, consider these effects of porn use:

  • Porn teaches us to regard our fellow human beings not as people to be loved, but as objects for sexual gratification.
  • Using porn enables emotional and spiritual immaturity, allowing us to cover over issues in our life and relationships with an artificial sexual release.
  • Using porn siphons sexual intimacy away from its intended place in marriage, leading to unhelpful comparisons, feelings of betrayal, and/or erectile dysfunction.
  • The increasingly violent and degrading nature of pornography normalizes sexual violence, choking, and rape.
  • Using porn contributes to an industry of human trafficking; it remains impossible to tell whether on-screen participants are doing so willingly or under coercion.

Given the widespread accessibility of pornography, many young women will inevitably feel pressure to compete with what’s so easily accessible online. In some high schools, sending nude or sexualized photos has become a sort of relational currency—a way of “keeping up” in a world where sexual attractiveness is considered a cardinal virtue.

There are numerous key conversations to have related to harmful and explicit content. We encourage you to make the following things clear:

  • Remember that people you meet online may not be who they seem to be.
  • You already have incredible value as our child and as God’s child; you do not need to do anything to prove your value.
  • Your body is good; God’s design for it and for sexuality is good.
  • You do not owe anyone access to your body, whether in person or online.
  • Pornography is harmful, and not something we want you to look at using this device (or any other device).
  • Sending nude or sexualized pictures is harmful, and not something we want you to do using this device (or any other device).

Conversation #5: What if everything goes wrong?

“This is all well and good,” you may be thinking, “but what if my teen breaks all of these rules—or has already broken all of them? What then?”

Your goal should be to create an environment where your kids can come to you and be honest with you about things that they do, or things that happen to them online.

In environments where perfection and “appearing righteous” are seen as paramount, many kids may believe that it’s better to lie rather than to be honest about something that happened, or something they did online—such as falling prey to the sorts of predatory groups we mentioned in conversation #4.

Along these lines, the final conversation to have before giving your teen a smartphone (but which is great to have at any point in your relationship) is this:

No matter what happens, you can always come to me. These rules around your phone are in place because I want what’s best for you, not because I’m trying to ruin your life. If something happens to you online, tell me; if you make a dumb decision and are faced with consequences, tell me; I will always love you and will always want what’s best for you, and there is nothing you can do to change that.

Evan Barber is a writer, podcast host, and senior editor at Axis. Over ten years, he’s led teams of gospel-minded researchers, writers, speakers, and content creators, leveraging pop culture to help parents show teens how faith is relevant to every aspect of our lives.