Dare to be different

Family | Ten reasons why parents should offer the gift of a smartphone-free childhood
by S.J. Dahlstrom
Posted 12/08/18, 12:58 pm

I will not buy a smartphone for my children because …

1. The assorted evils in all of world history await them in seconds.

Every wicked thought of man is waiting to be uncovered by a child on a smartphone in isolation. The perversion of every goodness lies twisted for youthful minds like a lion in blood-thirsty stalk. In the history of mankind, this is unprecedented, immediate access to both good and evil.

This tragic exposure can be innocent and accidental. The unfiltered access also preys on the natural curiosity of the human mind. Both of these instances are to be carefully shepherded by a parent. Indeed, is this not the entire job of a parent? Parenting is the act of deliberate censorship, teaching, shielding, and nurturing until the proper age when all is revealed. There are ideas and images that children are not ready for. This has always been so.

Talk about filters and parental controls is naïve and mealy mouthed. Would you give your child a rattlesnake and say watch out for the fanged end? The best filter is not putting it in their hand.

The abdication of parenting to the marketing-driven, impersonal, amoral vacuity of a Google search engine should terrify every parent in the world.

2. A smartphone screen provides 100 percent of the creativity needed for an entirely passive entertainment experience.

This is in contrast to a book where the mind is providing the images, color, and the gaps that are filled between printed words. Imagination and creativity are stifled through the smartphone screen by continually putting the user in the seat of the consumer. There is no free-flowing exchange of thought that expands the experience. Instead of getting smarter and more able during the experience, one becomes dumber and duller.

When fastened to a screen, the viewer loses engagement with the real world. Screens are only representations, at best, of the real world. When this happens, the user loses contact with the world around them, exchanging it for a fake reality. Strangely, this experience of losing oneself in a screen is addictive to humans. Countless studies have proven this to be true, but more so, it can be observed one example at a time.

Instead of addiction to the mere amusement of a flashing screen, I want my child to become addicted to their own creativity. There is no screen click that compares to bringing your own poem, story, musical piece, or visual art into the world. Personal creativity is a wonderful lifelong addiction that must be fostered in youth.

Instead of addiction to the mere amusement of a flashing screen, I want my child to become addicted to their own creativity.

In this same line, screens are debilitating in that they never allow a child to be bored. There is always one more click to lead to another click. The lie of all video games is that there is a “life” limit. Boredom is the great spur of creativity. I must have the courage to let my child sit in boredom … knowing the powerful weapon of their brain is many times activated by this very experience.

What does a screen have to compare with a sunset, a conversational meal with a grandparent, growing your own tomatoes, or a good night’s sleep? I don’t want them to miss the good stuff. I want them to wonder at the beauty of the created world that surrounds them each day.

3. My goal for my kids is independence, not dependence.

By tethering them to me for every event, camp, and after-school event I suffocate their need to develop planning skills and the ability to face the consequences of their actions. Would I sacrifice this crucial developmental point on the altar of my convenience? Or worse yet, play into my own helicoptering need to be involved and direct every second of their lives?

After all, didn’t every adult prior to 2007 endure childhood without one? Six thousand years of recorded human history tells us that a screen- and phone-free childhood is possible.

I am not my children’s Uber driver or entertainment coordinator. I am not at their beck and call. I want them to learn to plan ahead, accept consequences, and figure it out when things go wrong.

4. The medium is manipulative—its primary purpose is to get you to want things you shouldn’t want and buy things you don’t need.

Moving images on screens are inherently deceptive. Their sole purpose is to rev up your lust and envy and greed so you will make a purchase. People in the advertising business spend years learning how to manipulate children. The claim that Google, Facebook, and Instagram are free is an outrageous mythical illusion. Nothing on the vast medium is free. Every click and viewed second is tracked and monetized.

We as parents don’t teach our children media self-defense or even realize that they need it. But that’s what parents must now do. I must realize that I am susceptible to this attraction as well and I must be a role-model to them: I am not obsessed with keeping up with trivial marketers’ expectations of me on a smartphone, and that I have the guts to raise them to be the only one that resists.

We as parents don’t teach our children media self-defense or even realize that they need it.

What would our world be if no one in history had raised their kids with steel backbones to buck popular opinion and practice?

5. I want my kids to go into adulthood with bombproof bull detectors.

A childhood full of carefully crafted lies in photoshopped images and adspeak renders them helpless to what is real and truly needful in life. Most of the residual online marketing is sexualized to preposterous degrees. If they are raised on what is false, how will they know what is real?

There is a huge difference in the generalized casual sarcasm of teenagers and a cultivated instinct concerning con men reaching for your wallet. They must know what is authentic and what is counterfeit. Any bank teller will tell you that. I want them to grow up knowing what real people look like, how they act, and how they sound.

6. The entire premise of social media is a lie.

Especially for children, the intoxicating effect of being “liked” is more than they can handle in formative years. Even if this were not true, what would be the real benefit?

The symbiotic gain of even one true friendship is a buoyancy that easily outweighs a thousand clicks on a lip-pouting selfie from Disney World. I want my kids to do things, not simply classify themselves by what others like.

Social media thrives on a narcissistic vanity that has been condemned by every culture throughout human history. Selfie culture has led to a 24/7 comparison game with others. And the tables are tilted toward only the “best” possible images. This has been proven in numerous studies to lead to depression, suicide, and a range of other social dysfunctions.

Social media thrives on a narcissistic vanity that has been condemned by every culture throughout human history.

I want my kids to value a conversation with the old lady across the street more than a thousand likes of their recent concert attendance or preference of Star Wars over Harry Potter.

7. Anonymity is a killer of human beings.

The anonymous nature of screen interaction promotes secrecy and kills real community. If this is painfully true for adults, then how much more so is it for children?

Connections and relationships birthed and nurtured online can never be trusted entirely, especially for children still learning the complexities of relationships with their own family members. I want to know their friends and their acquaintances. These are the people they will become. It matters who they are talking to, who they are being shaped by.

8. Technology must be defined as something that makes my life better.

Every step toward new methods and mediums must be weighed with this in mind. Technology did not arrive with the iPhone. The printing press, penicillin, and the Hubble telescope were all steps forward that all people embrace. Does Snapchat, Twitter, and non-stop sexualized advertising make my life better? Does the ability to binge watch vulgar and violent TV shows 24/7 in privacy make my life better? Does spending an entire Saturday playing Fortnite with strangers make my life better?

Screens are a recent experiment in human culture. They have existed for a very short time, approximately 100 years. Every year since their creation their availability and usage has increased exponentially. Like asbestos and lead paint, any technology with such a growth curve must be viewed with caution and thoughtfulness.

Like asbestos and lead paint, any technology with such a growth curve must be viewed with caution and thoughtfulness.

To quote from Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were in such a hurry to figure out if they could, they never stopped to ask if they should.”

9. My child has no income and therefore cannot pay for an expensive electronic device and the significant monthly fees attached to its use.

Why is no one talking about this? Nothing without labor …

The argument against smartphones, financially, has a wicked twist to it. This is not some nefarious cancer or villain attacking from without. People are paying through the nose for it. What was a luxury item a few short years ago, parents have been coached to believe is an entitlement for every child.

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” the Hebrew prophet Isaiah asked.

10. You only get to be a kid once.

One way or another, my child will need to use a smartphone when they are older. I have a smartphone and feel it is necessary for business. President Abraham Lincoln ran the Civil War with the 19th century version of text messaging. Every lasting civilization has word processed in some way. Actual, necessary communication is not a new invention.

When my children are older, they will have the choice to mindlessly read fake news updates, scroll food photos, or zap zombies by the thousands. They will have the choice to view the entirely false representation of sexuality through millions of porn videos, write vicious remarks under assumed avatars, and run up their credit cards on things they do not need like the “new” iPhone every year. Those are coming battles they will have to face alone.

But they will have safely packed away the greatest gift a parent can give their child in the 21st century: a screen-free childhood.

Be the only one.

S.J. Dahlstrom

S.J. lives and writes in West Texas with his wife and children. His The Adventures of Wilder Good young-adult book series has won the Will Rogers Gold Medallion twice. The most recent release in the series is Silverbelly.

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  • DB
    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 01:22 pm

    Such good points that should be considered for us adults.....I am in a constant struggle with using my phone for productive God honoring purposes.

  • Rodney&ElaineParsley
    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 03:49 pm

    Effusive gratitude to Dahlstrom and WORLD for this article.  It's not easy being parents who are not allowing/providing their children with smartphones in today's society.    Our peers think we're behind the times, our children think they're deprived, and yet.... for exactly all the reasons Dahlstrom addresses... we have stuck to our "social experiment" of raising children sans phones.  Thankfully we're only accountable to God for the parenting decisions we make, and I'm grateful for the encouragement given to us thru Dahlstrom's words today.

  • phil green
    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 02:13 pm

    Amen!  Wow!  Was this good or what ?!! I get off my phone after 5 minutes on ESPN and I find it has been an hour!  What did I get for that hour?  Various invites to look at images of "imprperly attired" ladies that I have to struggle to say no to?  And then not bring up in my mind? What could I do with that hour if I had it back?  

    If I struggle mightly to fight this as a parent who confesses faith in the Lord Jesus why am I considering it for my children?

    Thank you so much for this article!  It was a good kick in the pants and I will share it with others!

  • GaryG
    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 03:08 pm

    Great article.  Every parent should think about these points.  I notice that the author never specifies the age of his children.  That may be intentional, but it might also be a missed 11th point.  This article rightly recognizes the responsiblity of parents to train their children.  If I am sending my 18-year-olds out into the world having never had the responsibility of managing a smartphone (under my guidance and close supervision while they live at home), I think I have probably missed out on that training opportunity.

    Some of my teen children have smartphones, and I will be reading this article together with them.  Thanks for these great reminders!

    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 04:33 pm

    As well as not giving them electronic games. We made it through without buying that stuff! 

    I wish we had withheld more TV as well. I did not see the problem at the time, and it seemed to be an innocent babysitter.

    When she was little even I loved watching Sesame Street. 

    She is an avid book reader now, and interacts with real people wherever she goes.

    Our daughter also see a problem/addiction that people have with not being able to put them down even when driving on the freeway.

    Maybe we need a national smartphone black-out day.

  • John R Erickson
    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 07:46 pm

    Bravo, Bro. Dahlstrom!  I hope church youth pastors are listening, just in case we have any kids left in church.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 08:27 pm

    Good points, and I somehow survived childhood without even a dumb phone. But I would like to point out that most of these cautions apply specifically to unsupervised internet-connected screen time.

    There are still quite a lot of useful skills that can be learned and practiced on a computer/smartphone/tablet without the need of an internet connection--writing and word processing (editing is so much smoother when you can go back and rearrange your sentences with a few clicks), graphic design (pixel art in Paint, photo editing, choosing fonts and colors for a birthday card), and even the basics of coding and robotics (Mom or Dad might need to supervise some searches for troubleshooting, though). These were all valuable elements of my and my siblings' childhoods, and I would hate for any kids to miss them entirely and have to start from scratch in high school or college. Oh, and if it doesn't need to play the latest and greatest games, an hand-me-down device will often be sufficient for these.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 09:38 pm

    Good job, Dahlstrom. Back in the day, we felt the same way about television. We raised our kids for the most part TV free. We were nearly the only ones in our circle doing so. Today as adults, they watch occasional movies, but not TV. Most definitely, they are not addicted to consumerism. For my part, I still do not own a TV. I cannot tolerate its intrusion into my space. Battling the temptations of smart phones is difficult enough.

  • MikeD
    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 10:30 pm

    There are good points to consider in this article. Have you convinced me to join your crusade? Not at all. You sound like a parent who would refuse to give his children a box of crayons because of all the horrible pictures he would scrawl all over the walls of the house.

    One of the biggest mistakes we made as parents was keeping our children out of the world instead of teaching them how to discern good from evil in the things of the world. Isolation is not the way to protect them. And 90% of what the article fears can be avoided by proper instruction and guidance.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sun, 12/09/2018 12:45 am

    MikeD, ...except by your own admission you didn't teach them "by proper instruction and guidance": you chose to keep them "out of the world." Therefore, your conclusion is not based upon your own experience.

  • MikeD
    Posted: Sun, 12/09/2018 10:33 am

    Well, success may not be in my experience, but the failure of following fearmongers is.

  • Janet S
    Posted: Mon, 12/10/2018 10:36 am

    Believe you missed the point.  Give them the box of crayons instead of the phone and let there imaginations shine through.  My son is a program developer and both he and his wife use technology and smart phones all the time, but  they do not let their children use computers and smartphones.  They know how to make their own fun, read books, explore their world and they are exposed to the world at the level they are capable of handling right now.  The mistake parents make is thinking you have to be involed in what the world is in order to understand the world. 

  • Ryan
    Posted: Mon, 12/10/2018 10:43 am

    I appreciate your perspective, MikeD, and I think you're right on a certain level. But I think you're missing some distinctions. Withholding smartphones until a more appropriate age (e.g. college, maybe) is precisely to avoid "keeping our children out of the world." Smartphones, especially for young minds, have a penchant for removing us from reality. If you want to talk isolation, a smartphone is a brilliant way to expedite it. They are not "neutral" technology. They, in combination with our fallen natures, are demonstrably bent toward unhelpful uses and it takes serious intentionality (and, one might argue, maturity) to tilt the scales the other way.

    I agree we need to introduce our kids to the reality of needing to choose between good and evil, wise and unwise, and hand-wringing, fear-driven, over-sheltering parenting is bad, and does damage. But that doesn't mean looking honestly at our love affair with these devices and realizing our kids' still-forming minds are not ready for the onslaught brought by these creativity-sapping, temptation-funneling, and yes, isolating objects is equivalent to the kind of overwrought parental censure of which you're ungraciously accusing the author.

    Proper instruction and guidance, sometimes, means withholding until the proper time. For something as dangerous as this, I think it's a hard sell to accuse someone taking this step of over-sheltering. We let our kids use our phones, under supervision and for very limited times, for lots of things related to school, and even for fun: looking up trees, plants, and animals; watching videos of volcanoes; Skyping with relatives; seeing my parents' dog do silly things. But they are my and my wife's phones - not theirs - and they are not allowed unsupervised time on them. They know how to use a phone, but they also know how (and prefer) to interact with their friends and the world in person.

    So in conclusion, I agree with your concern about isolating our kids from the world; it is a real problem in many homes. But withholding smartphones in formative years will not shut them out from the world. Quite the opposite.

  • BB
    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 10:43 pm

    Love this! 

  • RC
    Posted: Mon, 12/10/2018 02:52 pm

    Ten powerful arguments against the value of the so called, "smart phone". Should we call it the, "deceptive phone"? Because it  decieves the user into thinking it makes them smarter, while in reality it just dulls ones ability to think.    

  • JM
    Posted: Mon, 12/10/2018 06:26 pm

    How do I share this article?

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    Posted: Mon, 12/10/2018 06:34 pm

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  • Kenneth B
    Posted: Mon, 12/10/2018 10:08 pm

    A good article, and I enjoyed the thoughtful comments. (Ironically, I read this on my smartphone.) 

    Another Saturday post recently printed a CS Lewis letter where he wrote,”The World means worldly ends and ambition (inordinate interest in one’s career, love of money, snobbery, desire to be in the right set, desire for popularity).” In light of this definition, we’ve been really good at pursuing worldly objects long before the smartphone; the smartphone just accelerated that pursuit.

    All the same, the smartphone is a powerful tool and I will prohibit its use by my children, just like my circular saw.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Mon, 12/10/2018 11:10 pm

    I totally agree and, though my kids are only 8 and 10, I plan on not doing the phone thing. We limit all screen time, and let me tell you, kids are incredibly creative and they always find things to do (granted, making messes is often involved)! But I think one of the best things adults, parents, grandparents, can do to help young people use smart phones responsibly is to control their own screen addictions. Adults are just about as bad as the teenagers. We need to be an example. I remember when the iPhone first came out. This is exactly what I imagined: adults with their noses in their phones all the time. Didn't think about parents buying them for their kids however!

  • Bob Brown
    Posted: Sat, 12/15/2018 11:47 am

    Start early, from the beginning. My testimony here is for the benefit of new parents: Although it's possible to change course mid-stream--I suppose--our five kids (oldest is 13) have never had cell phones or social media access, and they've missed ... out ... on ... nothing. Full lives without them. And start from the earliest moment with daily family devotions. Start patterns of godly teaching and restrictions early, and they're easy to maintain. On the other hand, start kids on patterns of phone and social media use early -- and those, too, will be easily maintained...and hard to disrupt.