As summer fast approaches, likely so will increased screen time as school lets out. But new data and a bipartisan consensus that phones are bad for kids may give parents pause.
A growing body of research, though certainly not indisputable, has pointed out that smartphones with unfettered access to the internet and social media have serious negative effects for younger users, particularly teenage girls. At the end of May, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a formal warning and report about the effects of social media on child and teen mental health.
Since 2012, as smartphones were integrated into every part of our lives—and as that integration became an ever-earlier childhood milestone—youth mental health has plummeted. Teen anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation have all tracked eerily well with this technological shift.
As a society, we plopped Pandora’s box into the hands of 15-year-olds. Good luck, kiddos! Go wild. Instead, they became distraught, disconsolate, and utterly unwilling to give up their phones.
Two primary “solutions” to this problem have emerged: parental responsibility or government regulation. Both have obvious appeal. But both will likely ultimately prove inadequate—if not counterproductive—to the task at hand. No one family can entirely fix the kids and phones problem, but neither can Congress. In each case, the scale of the solution is wrong. And the place we have the best chance of getting the scale right is the local church.
The case for parental responsibility is simple and compelling. A responsible parent, knowing about the consequences of tobacco use, wouldn’t supply her child with cigarettes. A Christian parent, aware of spiritual formation, habits, and sin, wouldn’t buy his kid a membership to a pornography site. Likewise, knowing what we increasingly know about smartphones and social media, advocates of this solution say, “Maybe don’t let your kid have an iPhone?”
In one sense, they’re not wrong. Most underage children don’t need a smartphone, certainly not before the later teenage years, when driving and jobs and college begin. Simpler devices offer workarounds for the safety features many parents want, like location tracking and basic calling or texting, and a laptop is better for any academic or professional use.
But refusing to give your teenager a smartphone—let alone taking one away after you’ve given it—is nowhere near simple. It’s what social scientists call a collective action problem, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has explained. If you could ban every teenager from smartphones and social media, they’d all be better off. But if you can ban only your kid, she’ll almost certainly fare worse than before, because what you’ve effectively done is grounded her from half or more of her social life.
Technically, it’s not a punishment, but it will still feel like one. She’ll miss all the inside jokes and spontaneous hangouts and the constant, casual hum of the group chat. The inevitable charge that you’re “being mean” and “ruining my life” and “exasperating me” (Ephesians 6:4 was a go-to verse in my teenage years) will actually be pretty fair. That’s a lot to miss.
But what about a national regulation?
“Lawmakers can enact transformative change almost overnight—if they have the will to act,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a prominent advocate of this approach, argued in The Washington Post in February. “And I can think of at least one nonpartisan issue that deserves this kind of urgency: protecting children online. We should start by establishing an age requirement of 16 for social media.”
What Hawley’s article neglected to mention, though, is that most social media sites—and certainly all the big ones, including TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter—already have a minimum user age. It’s 13, and it’s set by an extant federal law that has been on the books for more than two decades.
It doesn’t really work. The minimum is toothless, as anyone familiar with the social media habits of the 12-and-under set knows. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a kid. Yet raising the minimum age and giving it a real bite would come with problems of its own. Hawley’s suggestion is to “require real age verification processes” enforced by occasional federal audits. Per legislation he’s introduced, that would mean giving social media sites your legal name, date of birth, and, crucially, “a scan, image, or upload of government-issued identification.”
The privacy risks are glaring—imagine the boon this would be for mass surveillance by Washington and unsavory foreign governments alike, to say nothing of hackers, identity thieves, and other criminals. Then there’s the danger to free speech. ID verification would end online anonymity for those who lack the tech-savvy to venture into darker corners of the web.
In fact, the constitutional concerns are serious enough that this idea might well be killed in court. “Mandating age verification means that every user will be forced to hand over identifying information before accessing lawful content, or speaking, on social media—a chilling proposition that courts will strike down as easily as they have in the past,” Ari Cohn, a First Amendment lawyer, told Reason (where I am a contributor).
Maybe other regulatory proposals will emerge with fewer legal and practical downsides, but I’m not optimistic. That’s partly because of the sorry array of ideas currently on offer. It’s also partly because state prohibition of highly desirable products is often unsuccessful if not downright catastrophic, because mental agreement that phones are bad for kids frequently fails to translate to any real behavioral change, and because teenagers are great at getting around unwanted limits.
That brings us to the church. Unlike the federal government, a local congregation is small enough that a no-smartphones-for-kids agreement can be realistically implemented and enforced, and of course there are no constitutional constraints on this kind of voluntary, communal rule of life. And unlike a single family, a local congregation is big enough that parents wouldn’t be left to tackle this problem alone and teenagers wouldn’t be isolated from a social center all their friends enjoy.
Of course, this kind of congregational pact wouldn’t be a panacea. Most of us have friends and family outside our local church, which means many parents would still have to contend with competing norms among school friends, cousins, neighbors, and so on.
It would also require a seriousness about committing to a church-wide standard of behavior that many congregations simply do not have. Legalist, fundamentalist, Luddite—you’d hear it all, because this is a legitimately difficult proposal in our culture.
That difficulty is exactly why it’s worth considering. A congregational smartphone policy is a very 21st-century way to carry each other’s burdens and “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:2, 10). But the novelty of the burden makes it no less heavy. These little ones need help to bear it (Luke 17:1–2). Like many spiritual disciplines, the local church could be uniquely positioned to offer that help.