Helping Youth Set Boundaries On Technology


Just about everyone has one in their pocket: a smartphone.

While churches have taken steps to make their sanctuaries gun-free zones, they are not threat free. My iPhone 6 is a two and half by five and half inch rectangle of circuits, metal, and glass that can access a sea of information in an instant. Social media connects me with millions of people around the world. I’m one savvy post away from one billion “likes” or retweets. I’m also one stupid comment away from a slew of internet shaming.

The smartphone, and the social media networks they keep us connected to, are incredible sources of social mirroring. We all mirror to a degree, looking to the reactions of those around us to gauge our behavior, our appearance, and our wit. We gauge ourselves, and come to an understanding of our identity, in part through the reactions of those around us.

Social media only amplifies and expands that impulse. Rather than looking to friends and loved ones, we look to the world--an impersonal, diverse, pixelated world.

The Atlantic recently featured a column by Jean M. Twenge on how smartphones are affecting Millennials. Warning: it is a long read, but incredibly important. Dr. Twenge is the author of the 2006 book Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before. She’s been watching Millennials for a while. She’s concerned about how smartphones are negatively impacting mental health among Millennials and those even younger. Big shifts are underway.

Dr. Twenge writes, “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns.” The smartphone is affecting everyone, regardless of class, race, and geography. Dr. Twenge states, “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”

What’s interesting is that teenagers are safer than those in previous generations. They date less, are less sexually active, drive less, and are home more. They also don’t work and are less likely to get enough sleep. Dr. Twenge observes, “Teens...seem to be content with this homebody arrangement—not because they’re so studious, but because their social life is lived on their phone. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends.”

But Dr. Twenge reports that this trend has led to unhappiness, saying “The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.” The obvious remedy is less screen time and more in-person interactions. Dr. Twenge states, “Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.” Putting the phone down and talking face to face helps.

It’s one thing to tell your congregation to put down their phones and to restrict the amount of screen time teenagers have. But it is quite another to present the staggering amount of data that suggests too much time on our smartphones negatively impacts our mental health. In a previous generation kids would run through clouds of pesticide designed to eradicate mosquitos, thinking it was fun, until we realized how dangerous this could be. Knowing the negative impacts can result in a change of behavior.

But in churches, we not only need to stress behaviors to avoid, we also need to offer wisdom, noting how practices like fellowship and service not only enrich our own lives but the lives of others. Our smartphones only give us the illusion of engagement, not the kind of deep human interaction that occurs when we neighbor one another in person and face to face.

Churches have the opportunity to bring this knowledge before Millennials, Generation Z, and what Dr. Twenge calls “iGen,” and to help them set better boundaries with technology. Church leaders also can equip younger generations with practices that will help them connect with others in service to Jesus Christ.

That is an act of love.