By Tony Reinke
When Silicon Valley’s 20-something techno-prodigies were awing the world with new, shiny, unveilings of iPods and then iPhones and then iPads, many of the inventors didn’t have kids. Few had teens. Now, most of them have kids, and many have teens — teenagers addicted to gadgets their parents birthed into the world years ago.
This is the story of Tony Fadell, a former Senior VP at Apple, known as the grandfather of the iPod, and a key player on the early design team for the iPhone. On the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone in an interview, he made this admission: “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?”
Fadell, a father of three, has come to see the addictive power of the iPhone, an addiction that cannot be removed. “I know what happens when I take technology away from my kids. They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them — they get emotional about it, very emotional. They go through withdrawal for two to three days.”
“This self-absorbing culture is starting to [really stink],” Fadell said. “Parents didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know this was a thing they needed to teach because we didn’t know for ourselves. We all kind of got absorbed in it.”
Yes — we all got absorbed — techies and teens and parents. All of us. And now we’re trying to figure out how to wisely manage our devices.
Teens, Smartphones, and Depression
Digital absorption has coincided with the fast-changing dynamics of public high school life. Last winter, I asked an assistant principal at a large Twin Cities high school (of more than 2,000 students) how her job has changed over the past two decades.
Much remains the same, she said. “But the one thing that has changed drastically in working with teenagers for over twenty years is the dependency they have now on the instant gratification and feedback from others. How many likes do I have? How many followers? And there’s a compulsion to put something online to see how many likes I can get. And if that wasn’t enough, what does it say about me?”
“There’s a really strong connection to this behavior and the increased mental health issues we’re seeing in the school,” she said. “Over the past three-to-five years I would say my job has changed the most, because we’re now dealing with so much more mental health. I don’t think it’s singularly because of technology, but I genuinely believe digital technology is a major factor. It changes everything from the way people relate with others to the way they see themselves.”
Destroying a Generation?
The cold sweats of Fadell and the eyewitness testimony of this assistant principal are captured in the haunting headline over a recent feature article published in The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
iGen is the new label for those roughly 12-to-22-year-olds, born between 1995 and 2005. Among them, the warning signs are prevalent. “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011,” wrote author Jean Twenge of the struggles faced by the iGen-ers. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.
“The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression,” and, “girls have borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among today’s teens.” Twenge cites sources that show depression is on the rise among both boys and girls. For boys, depressive symptoms rose 21% between 2012–2015. In the same span, rates among girls increased by 50%. The rates of suicide for both increased, too. Male suicides doubled; female suicides increased threefold.
From what I know about these spikes in depression, and what I have discovered about the allure of our devices, what we are addressing here are existential questions about the meaning of life and acceptance from others — massive questions, weighing heavy on a young generation. These are redemptive questions, identity questions, gospel issues.
Digital media force a teen and preteen into the 24-7 pressure cooker of peer approval. But it’s not just teens; all of us feel this addictive draw of our social media. Smartphones seem to influence us all in at least 12 potent ways.
But the question here is pretty straightforward: Given these warning signs, is it possible for a teen to resist the powers of culture and go smartphone-free through the middle school and high school years?
I asked Jaquelle Crowe, the author of the excellent book, This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years, that question. She provides us with a rare example of an iGen teen who postponed the adoption of a smartphone until age 18. I asked her what it was like to wait so long.
Jaquelle, thanks for your time to share your experience. Studies are beginning to suggest that rates of teen depression are on the rise, and there is no single factor to get all the blame. But the pervasiveness of smartphones among iGen teens has to be considered as a significant cause. Would this connection surprise you?
Absolutely not. Smartphones contribute significantly to the 24-7 approval culture we live in. There’s no escaping it. This is something our parents don’t always understand, because when they were teenagers, that culture was largely limited to the 9–3 school day, and then they retreated to the boredom of family life.
But now there’s 24-7 social media. There’s a constant comparison and peer approval game that cannot be escaped. And it’s crippling, exhausting, and undeniably stressful. You can’t get away from the likes, the shares, the texts, the pictures. It’s like the popularity contest never ends. And it works both ways. Your smartphone gives you a front-row seat to watch the popularity contest, too.
That is a powerful dynamic, hard to escape the popularity culture on both fronts (feeding it and watching it play out). You did not get a smartphone until you were 18, but you had friends with smartphones, right?
Yes, I did, and I was well aware that most of my peers had access to something I didn’t. I could name every friend who had a phone, simply because I would see their phone. If Alison got a phone, I knew about it. If Jared got a phone, I knew about it. Not because they flaunted it or shamed me, but because it was always around. Even if we were talking together, it would buzz or ping or they’d be fidgeting with it. If there was a pause, a moment of silence, a break, they’d be on their phones, and I’d be left in the lingering awkwardness and boredom.
It definitely fed my FOMO (fear of missing out). It fed into some insecurity. Even though my friends never made me feel weird for not having a smartphone, it was an expectation, so they were surprised when they discovered I didn’t have one. There were times when I was the outlier. And not only with friends but also with my generation at large. I’d be walking through the mall or waiting in line or stopped on the sidewalk, and I would look around, fully present and disconnected — and stare at a sea of teens glued to smartphones. I was an exception, and that felt uncomfortable.
At times, I felt lonely — even if I was surrounded by people. They were constantly connected and I was isolated. I felt confined by my lack of access. At the same time, those feelings were largely emotional and visceral because I agreed theoretically with my parents — that I didn’t need a phone right then.
I applaud your parents for this foresight and conviction. Most parents, I fear, simply cave to the pressure, as their teen caves to the pressure — a domino effect of pressures, and certainly one I feel as a parent. But it’s worth giving this decision critical thought, because introducing a fully functioning smartphone is a decision that cannot easily be undone. For you, how much trust does this call for on the part of a teen, to wait? It seems like you have to trust your parents more than your peers, and that’s a main struggle of the teen years.
It calls for trust, definitely. And connected to that, a willingness to submit and obey. Ultimately, it requires a recognition that your parents are actually looking out for your best interests — emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically — and that they know you better than your peers do.
The thing is, deep down, most teens know that. They just push back because not owning a smartphone makes them feel ashamed.
I assume you had access to a phone of some sort?
Yes. If I was going out, I’d often borrow my mom’s flip phone for emergencies. I almost never used it.
That’s wise. As for digital media, what did you have access to before the smartphone?
I had a computer, I had email, I had access to some social media. I technically could do everything from home. But in a digital world with an expanding reach, that still somehow seemed limited.
For sure. Speaking as a 20-year-old now, what would you say to parents who are weighing the pros/cons and reading all the news and the testimonies of parents of teens, and who are coming to the conclusion that delaying the smartphone in the life of their teen would be wise? What kind of pushback should they expect to hear from their teen?
To parents, I’d say: It is worth it to have your kids wait. I’ve seen it and heard it and can attest to it since I got my own smartphone — smartphones change you. They give you overwhelming and shocking access. They zap your attention span. They are massively addictive. You can (and should!) put up safeguards, but a smartphone fundamentally changes your heart and mind. If it’s possible for teens to delay that change, I think it is a wise consideration.
Teach your teens discipline and discernment before you entrust them with the dangers of a smartphone. Of course, smartphones are not inherently evil; they have the potential for great good. But they need to be wielded well.
If you’re making your teen wait, don’t delegitimize the painful exclusion they’ll feel but use this time to prepare them to use technology wisely and faithfully. In the hands of unprepared, immature teens, smartphones can be deadly.
As for pushback that a parent is sure to hear, teens will feel left out. That might make them frustrated, confused, lonely, or hurt, and if they lash out, that’s why. They might feel like they’re separated from their friends. They might feel the pain of peer pressure. They might fear missing out. They might even have some legitimate concerns (e.g., having a phone with them when they’re out by themselves).
Parents, in the face of this pushback, be willing to explain your reasoning. When your teens ask you, “Why can’t I have a smartphone?” they really don’t want you to say, “Because I told you so.” Even if they don’t agree with it, they will likely respect your willingness to reason with them and the depth of critical thought you’ve put into this.
Share your research with them. Introduce them to other teens (in person or online) who don’t have smartphones. Instead of treating them like a child (just saying, “No” and moving on), pursue thoughtful, honest dialogue with them. Allow them to keep the conversation going, and be willing to do the hard work of communication for the greater good of your relationship.
Very good. And perhaps we can close with what you would say directly to the teens in this scenario. What should they expect to face by way of internal and peer struggle?
To the teens who take this countercultural move, you are an outlier in your generation. Obedience in life requires avoiding every clingy weight that will trip you up in the Christian life (Hebrews 12:1). I can only encourage you to hold fast. It comes down to this. Hold fast.
Jesus is better than a smartphone. You will rehearse this truth over and over in your heart.
And when you feel burdened by exclusion and isolation, don’t despair. Your identity is not in fitting in or meeting superficial expectations. It’s in Christ alone. And he gives you one task: be faithful. Right now, that looks like obeying your parents and trusting their good intentions for you — and that may mean not having a smartphone for a time.
Don’t run from this reality in shame; embrace it in faith. Your joy is not found in cultural connectivity; it’s found in union with Christ. So hold fast, and be faithful. Your reward is coming and it is far greater than any loss you will feel in this life.