I have taught middle school students for 17 years. In past years, we have taken our students on overnight field trips. One particular trip we used to take was to Florida, where my students got to have an amazing experience that included snorkeling with manatees, hiking through the forest, exploring caves, and more. Their excitement to take learning outside of the typical classroom was palpable.
Until I announced that they can’t have their phones.
Although predictable, I will never get used to their distress. Many are angry. Several complain about going, wishing they could just skip the trip. Their biggest issue with this no-phone policy? Losing their “streaks” on Snapchat.
The Streak on Snapchat. The Like on Instagram. The buzz of a notification. The online world of a teenager is a virtual foreign planet with its own set of cultural norms, common language, and social cues. Once parents have familiarized themselves with this universe, it all changes again with the latest app, updated device, and newest fad. What is the wisest course to navigate these unchartered spaces of social media? How are Christian parents to respond?
Some parents are too uncomfortable or overwhelmed, so they disengage while their teens have free reign to explore the social-media galaxy. Others try to know everything about the latest technologies and assimilate through total immersion. This false dichotomy can be eradicated by making decisions according to Truth. Here are some things Christian parents should consider in deciding the wisest course:
1. Do not be naive about social media and your teenager.
We’ve seen the data. We’ve read the statistics. We are not ignorant of the dangers that lurk in the hidden corners and dark alleys of the social media universe. (Parents who are unaware should do some research.) The studies inform us that students get addicted from the dopamine surge with online interactions. Unlike past students, teenagers do not have the opportunity to separate from their negative peer interactions at the end of the school day; their issues follow them home on their mobile devices. They are more “connected” than ever but report feeling lonelier than previous generations.
If teens have their phones in their rooms at night, they are losing sleep. They are worried they are missing something. Nothing productive happens at 2 in the morning on a teenager’s social media accounts or group chats. Not one thing. Don’t assume your kids are the few who are doing it “right” and keeping their phones tucked away. Don’t give them the option to be tempted to hop on the internet. Night use is also a breeding ground for the birth of a porn addiction.
Don’t be naïve. Wisdom demands we pay attention and urges us to take action (Proverbs 1:20-33; 8:1-9:6). Don’t ignore or shrug off what we know about the dangers of smartphones. That’s foolish.
2. Be more concerned for your teenager’s holiness than his acceptance.
We are fine with our kids standing out in ways the world finds attractive such as sports, academics, or the arts; however, we are hesitant for our kids to stand out in the ways of Christ, especially if the result is persecution. (And, really, the persecution our teens may experience seems insignificant compared to our brothers and sisters suffering in other parts of the world.)
Our teens who are truly redeemed will live differently than the students who are not (2 Corinthians 5:17). There should be a difference in their thinking, words, and actions.
And those of us who are Christian parents will parent differently than our unconverted friends. Our decisions regarding social media and phone use (and everything really) should be made in light of the gospel and our children’s sanctification.
Social media, unmonitored group chats, and internet use open up a door into a world that gives teens knowledge they are not necessarily equipped to handle. Christians are supposed to be infants in evil but grown-up in our thinking (1 Corinthians 14:20). Culturally, we get this backward. I see too many teenagers who have too much knowledge of evil without the ability to be critical thinkers.
Although we teach our teens to avoid pitfalls that can so easily entangle them, we need to recognize that our children were born sinners and need a Savior (Hebrews 12:1 and Romans 3:10). No matter how much we try and protect them from the evil “out there,” it’s futile without first addressing the sinful natures they inherit from Adam (Romans 5:12). They are sinners. Period. Just like their parents are sinners.
3. Orient your family life around living for His Kingdom
Having a Kingdom mindset, we parents will make intentional decisions about social media and internet use in our homes based on our purpose to know Christ and to make Him known. My husband and I have decided that my boys have no social media. They also do not get a phone until they drive, much to my seventh grader’s dismay. We see no benefit. Not even one reason that makes it worth it. Other parents may decide differently, and that’s okay. We may change our mind at some point, too.
Another decision we’ve made is that my boys have no privacy online. I have complete access to my boys’ email addresses and passwords. I can hop on at any time to read messages. I get a weekly email of everything they search, every YouTube video they watch, and every website they go to. Consider investing in such a service so you can be aware of how much time they are wasting online, including social media. It’s another layer of accountability.
Tell them the reasons for your decisions. I respect my teenage boys enough to have the conversations about why we’ve decided these things. They need to know that our parenting choices are made to please God, not for our convenience (1 Corinthians 10:31). The I-told-you-and-that’s-it mentality misses an opportunity for them to hear you putting your faith into practice in everyday life. Remind them that living for Christ always includes a daily dying to ourselves (Luke 9:23 and 1 Corinthians 15:30). We are not of this world (John 17:16), but dual citizenship means we prioritize one kingdom over another because both don’t always agree.
4. Be the model for your teens regarding your behavior, online or not.
Be prepared to make some sacrifices that you expect your teen to make. Although we should be wiser and have more self-control than our teenagers, I have had moments where I’ve spent entirely too much time on online. I want them to be men who are fully present for their families when they leave my house. I want them to love God and His word. Do I model this in my home by limiting my own time on my devices? Do they see me read the Bible and delight in Christ? What does my behavior teach them about my priorities?
The ever-changing, sandy foundations of the smartphone world can give parents unsteady feet. But we can rest in knowing that God is the same forever (Hebrews 13:8), and His foundation is rock solid (Matthew 7:24-27). Even though my husband and I are in the minority when it comes to our decisions about social media and phones for our sons, I’m okay with that. I implore you to make your decisions intentionally, prayerfully, and for the glory of God.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was originally published by Randall House in the 2019 September, October, November edition of Fusion Magazine.
 Our oldest son, who is now a 20-year-old adult, has since created a social media account.