The Worst Gift to Give a Middle-School Student

Reposted with permission from The Cripplegate.

by Jesse Johnson

What is the worst Christmas gift you can give your middle-school student? I don’t mean that spiritually—as in unbelief—or theologically—as in The Jesus Calling Student Edition. I mean it seriously. What is the worst gift that you can give your middle-school student?

This Christmas thousands of middle school students are going to get a gift under their tree or in their stocking, and it is going to wreck their lives.

The worst gift you can give your middle-school student is … 

A smart phone.

I’ve heard every excuse from parents. “All his friends have them!” “She needs to be picked up from her ballet folklorio class (the one on Wednesdays), and so she has to text me when it’s over.” “You see, the carpool drop off is around the corner from the entrance to the school, and I just want him to text when he gets to class so that I know he made it safely; is that too much to ask?” Even, “It’s important that she FaceTime ® her grandparents whenever she wants, so natch she needs her own phone, preferably one with a 6MP camera.”

These excuses are straight out of cell phone commercials. I appeal to parents to understand that when you hand your child her own smart phone, you are handing her something that requires more maturity than the keys to the car, more self-control than is required at Krispy Kreme, and more spiritual danger than a gift card to your local charismatic book store.

Ask yourself this: When you were twelve, if someone would have placed a stack of pornographic magazines in your room, would you (at age 12) have had the self-control to not look at it? Every night?

Now put your 12-year-old self in a school with minimal supervision, and all of your friends were looking at pornography, and you happened to have some in your back-pack right then; would you have tried to fit in?

This is the situation you are putting your child when you give him a smart phone. You are handing him unlimited access to everything he’s most curious about. You are not placing him in one situation where compromise is a possibility, but countless situations. Compromise will be as available to him as…well, as his phone is.

If you want your kids to be able to send anonymous messages to strangers, to receive inappropriate pictures from classmates, or have constant texts with that one student you hear so much about but strangely have never met, then a smart phone is a great idea. If you think your kids would never send inappropriate pictures of themselves, or receive inappropriate pictures of others, then it is with a heavy heart that I inform you of what kids these days do with their phones: actually, never mind, I can’t bring myself to type it. The short version is, don’t give your middle school student a smart phone.

I know college students who ditch their smart phones to produce a distance between temptation and their pockets. I know grown men who are parents and pastors who won’t be alone in their house with their cell phones. But I don’t know any good reason why parents would think their middle-school student would be different.

I get it. Maybe your child is not the kind who will be tempted by porn. Maybe they won’t share inappropriate pictures on line. There might be a 50-50 chance of that, or even 70-30. But why not wait a few years to find out if that’s something they will struggle with before giving handing them that struggle with a bow on top?

Give them an I-pod to listen to music. If it is super important for you that your kid have increased access to video games, then give them a tablet. If you want them to Face Time their grand-ma-ma, get them a computer (with Circle!), or lend them your phone. But don’t unlock the door to the dungeon, push them in, and say, “Call me when you are ready to be picked up.”

Parents think that they can give their kids smart phones, but just limit what apps are on there, and then monitor all conversations, pictures, updates, and installs. Ha! Believe it or not, today’s techno-neophyte child will have a better grasp of that technology next week than you do now. I have a neighbor who designs apps for major companies (eg., Delta Airlines, AMEX). He’s no techno slouch. And he told me that even he can’t figure out a way to keep unwanted apps from being installed on his kid’s smart phones.

I’m not writing this as a Luddite. I think you can put your kids on a computer or tablet, put them on in-house wifi, install Circle and a messaging app that you can monitor, and be reasonably safe.

But I’m also not naïve. You shouldn’t give a twelve-year-old unrestricted access to data usage that you can’t monitor, can’t supervise, and can’t track. Which is exactly what you are doing when you give them a smart phone.

So this Christmas, give your middle school student something that will help her and not harm her. Give her cash, give her music, or take her to a movie. Whatever. Just don’t set her spiritual house on fire, and tell them “Send me a message when it has burned down.”


Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master’s Seminary Washington DC location.

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There are 15 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Let's be honest, here; it strikes me that the same kind of jeremiads were in place when Gutenberg invented the printing press, when Marconi invented the radio, when Farnsworth and others invented the television, and when Al Gore (ha) invented the Internet.  Kids have always found ways to get into trouble, and the bulwark against that has always been the love and guidance of parents.  

And while it is indeed true that a smart phone is marginally more flexible in obtaining media of various sorts than are tablets, ipods, ipads, computers, and the like because you can "get data" without a wireless connection, the same thing allows parental supervision.  You can track what kind of media are coming through in your report of data usage, just like you can with other devices.  In fact, a smart phone is a lot better than the PC and tablet connections a lot of schools give kids in this regard.

In other words, as always, it's not the tool that's the problem any more than guns cause crime, knives cause cuts, or cars cause accidents.  

dgszweda's picture

I find this article shortsighted from reality.  We all realize that mobile phones introduce a challenge for us as parents, but the reality is that we can't hide our kids from this stuff either.  Even if you restricted them there are 80 other ways that if they want to find a way is just as easy.

Jay's picture

But I’m also not naïve. You shouldn’t give a twelve-year-old unrestricted access to data usage that you can’t monitor, can’t supervise, and can’t track. Which is exactly what you are doing when you give them a smart phone.

So much of the objections that the author has to a cellphone can (I think) be mitigated by two words: "better parenting" or even one word - "trust".

You don't need to lock down the phone.
You don't need to control all the apps.
You don't need to monitor all the texts.

You just need to know your kids, and be watching over their hearts and heads.

A cellphone is like the internet, a car, a tank of gas, or a gun - it's all in what the person chooses to do with it.  As long as they are kids and young adults, they're going to need their parents to do their job and raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and that means that if the kids aren't equipped to handle the challenges of a smartphone, then they get a dumbphone instead that does just calls and text.  If the kids and young adults do love their God with all their heart, soul and mind and love their neighbors as themselves, 90% probably shrivels up into dust and is scattered to the winds.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Bert Perry's picture

In Bible times, young people walked by the temples of Molech, Asherah, Artemis, Aphrodite, and the like without losing their faith, doing just fine when a real live shrine prostitute walked by with the imprint of her shoes saying "follow me", but kids today can't handle a 2" tall image of the same on their phone, apparently.

Do we believe in perserverance of the saints/eternal security, or do we not?  Do we believe in the sovereignty of God, or do we not?

Bert Perry's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Most assuredly.  Do we believe that all our young Teens are saved?  I hope not.  And therein lies the problem.

OK, unsaved kids in the church in Paul's time came to Christ after meeting temple prostitutes on the streets of Corinth, but today's kids can't come to Christ after seeing a 2" tall image of the same on their phone?  Have we forgotten that where sin abounds, there abounds grace all the more?  That God is glorified in using the weak things of this earth to shame the strong?  That prostitutes are in the lineage of Christ?

I'm no advocate of smartphone porn or porn of any kind, but I think we have to get a grip, Biblically speaking, on exactly what settings God used to help His church thrive in the early days and draw some conclusions from that.  God does not tell us to head for the hills to avoid any temptation to sin, but rather chose in His sovereignty to site churches in some of the most worldly cities known to the world, then or now.

Jim's picture

When my kids wanted pagers:

  • Was opposed to it
  • Thought it was a waste

As it turned out:

  • Was a great way to call the kids home
  • I paid the upfont
  • Took the monthly fee out of their allowance
  • The deal was ... when Dad pages ... you'd better call him pronto or else
  • Worked out fine
Aaron Blumer's picture

On the book and the radio, the latter has had a far stronger cultural impact (as a cultural change ratio) than the former, but I was raised in a "the only radio is all of us listening together radio" environment likewise with TV. Mostly did the same with our own kids until they were a good bit older than what our culture considers an appropriate age to be autonomous with these things. Less so with books, but growing up, the folks paid a whole lot of attention to what we were reading and vetoed anything they didn't think was healthy.

There's a pattern to the technological development:

Book (low impact, but parental control still important) --> Radio (more impact, more parental control required) --> Smart phone (orders of magnitude more impact, extremely difficult for most parents to control, control essential)

Guesstimating the technological leap distance, from book to radio, let's say the book is at 1, the radio at 10, the smartphone is 500. Just my opinion, but there's plenty of general evidence.

The Don't Make Your Job Impossible Principle of Parenting

I see young parents make this mistake all the time: arranging the house rules and kid rules in such a way that maximizes the difficulty for them as parents while relatively minimizing the difficulty for the kids. This is backwards. They have an almost infinite supply of energy, are extremely resilient, think faster than parents do (not better, but faster), and stand to benefit from almost anything that requires them to defer gratification. So... parents should arrange the rules to make them as easy as possible for the parent to operate (and discipline) and not for the convenience of the child. In other words, parenting is hard enough without handing your kids technologies that are going to be a constant struggle to properly control.

Ergo, my advice to parents is don't give them a smart phone until you plan to pretty much turn them loose with it. (Which I have done with one child.) There are ways to control them, but it's difficult, and the kids are going to be constantly finding ways around it. This is true even of a desktop PC, and the phone--much harder.

Edit: I should clarify that when I talk about "impact," I'm talking about the degree to which influence does not pass through a conscious evaluative thought process as a filter. Messages via books demand that you think about them (mostly... less so with dramatic fiction). Messages via radio can largely bypass that. Messages via TV/video far more so. When you combine all that in a device that accesses everything...  it's just immensely potent. We will not know what we have done to ourselves for maybe a century, if then.

dgszweda's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Book (low impact, but parental control still important) --> Radio (more impact, more parental control required) --> Smart phone (orders of magnitude more impact, extremely difficult for most parents to control, control essential)

I still think we are being naive.  I had friends in middle school who would go to the public library to read the in depth pornographic chapters in Stephen King's IT in the stacks.  You could go down to the bookstore and check out the nude photos in the photography magazines.  At the Christian School that I went to, kids would bring in Playboys.  Kids will find a way.  Yes the phone brings in another venue to view this stuff and there is access to more of it, but kids in the 1970's were doing the same thing.  And 20 years from now it will be something else.  Not to say we shouldn't be very careful and setup rules and such, but I think we are naive in saying that if we eliminate smartphones from our kids that we have no restricted access to pornography.

David R. Brumbelow's picture

I basically agree with this article.  We might disagree on details, but Jesse Johnson brings up valid points.  

Pornography has always been around, but you used to have to go to a little trouble to get it.  Now, it is thrown right in your lap by smartphones, internet, TV, etc.  While they can, parents need to protect, inform, warn their kids.  

David R. Brumbelow

TylerR's picture

Each parent needs to decide. We're not giving our teenagers smartphones at all.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

Here's an interesting article, courtesy of the AMA (from links from Larry's links), that notes that the human response to social media is analogous to that from a hug.  Now let's grant that this may be an imprecise analogy, but we can still run with it.  If we say that social media are always wrong, we would simultaneously infer that a hug is wrong.  After all, the same dopamine release mechanism is involved, no?

And then we run into the five times that Scripture tells us to greet brothers and sisters in Christ with a holy kiss.  I would guess there is a dopamine release with that, and something of the sort with ordinary greetings of the "white bread" variety, and with good music (hopefully we have that), and good meals (same), and.....

So is the problem the smart phone (book, radio, TV, computer, cell phone, etc..), or is it that the presence of the tool is exposing a lack of personal engagement in our families and churches?  Again, I'm not giving a cell phone to my kids until they really ought to have one--my cutoff now is when they're driving on their own for the most part--but the simple fact of the matter is that the entire world is, at some point, engineered to facilitate that dopamine release.  Better to teach kids to handle it than to say "no no no" and then let then crash and burn when they leave the home, no?

Picture of this; about 25 years back, I was teaching junior high Sunday School near LA and one young lady was just not connected at all--today she might be the girl on her smart phone doing anything but paying attention to the lesson.  Well, at least until one Sunday, when I made a wisecrack referencing the old Motel 6 commercial (we were talking about hospitality), and all of a sudden she was 100% engaged.  

Turned out that her "drug of choice"--very uncharacteristic for the LA area--was AM radio and she was the only kid in the class who knew who Tom Bodett was.  Leaving the light on for her was what was needed, not the destruction of her transistor radio.

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