Knick-Knack, Paddy-Whack, Give the Teen a Phone.

The cell phone is to the 11 year old now what the learners permit was to the 16 year old then.

Freedom. Liberty. Status. And just plain cool.

15 years ago, I thought that guy Tony in my church who had the small leatherette attache’ case with the shoulder strap and a coiled cord coming out the side attached to a phone handset was the coolest person I knew. When he swiveled that antenna skyward, you knew it was Go Time. And now, well…next time you’re anywhere stop and look around. Count how many people have a teeny-weeny device next to (or in) their ear.

This past holiday season, my daughter (she’ll be 13 in 2 months) told us that she really wanted a cell phone for Christmas. My wife and I have always employed the “give it to ’em straight” parenting method. We don’t sugar-coat anything. We’ve actually had this conversation in our home:

My wife: “There’s no Santa Claus.”
Kids: “Yes there is!”
My wife: “Okay, Daddy and I won’t put out any gifts. Let’s see what Santa brings you.”

See? It’s just that easy to crush a child’s dreams. Practice hard, and you can do it too.

But this whole business of elementary school kids and tweens with phones is pretty crazy. I know there are legitimate reasons for some kids to have their own phone. And far be it from me to launch into a “back in my day” soliloquy. It’s just that kids having phones has opened up just as many (if not more) pitfalls than conveniences.

There’s a kid in our neighborhood that plays in our yard regularly. He’s an awesome kid. He’s polite, kind, thoughtful, and just really cool. He’s the kind of kid you want your kids hanging around. (Does anyone say that about MY kids?) And his house is about 50 yards from ours. And when he needs to ask his mom if he can come in, or stay out, or do whatever, he pulls out the cell phone and calls her. He’s in 4th grade.

Meanwhile, we tell our kids, “If you can’t hear us calling you (as in yelling), you’re too far from the house.” We’re so old-fashioned.

I know of families where each person in the family has a phone, and texting from room to room has taken the place of conventional talking (who’d have thought you’d ever need to use “conventional” and “talking” in the same sentence?).

And once again yesterday, I was reminded of the snares of “sexting”, because the mass media got bored with Haiti for a second and had to fill some airtime. Young people are facing fines and imprisonment for sending sexually charged messages, pictures, and videos to each other through their cell phones and smart phones. By the way, if I rely on a “smart phone” to handle the details of my life, what does that make me?

And perhaps you’ve seen the commercial out of the UK that horrifically and graphically portrays the dangers of texting while driving. Geared at teens, but relatable to all; watch that brief PSA spot and you’ll think twice about punching that keypad next time you’re behind the wheel.

But parents far and wide are plunking down their dollars to give Junior and Juniorette their very own weapon of mass interruption. And I’ve been astounded to hear from parents about their seemingly endless frustrations about their son/daughter texting all hours of/through the night with their friends. You’ve heard of “Shaken Baby Syndrome”? How about some “Shaken Parent Syndrome” for parents who forget that THEY’RE the parents? When I talk with them about the struggles they’re facing since little Johnny got his cell phone, I pretty much ask one simple question, “And who pays that cell phone bill?” Did you know that you can choose NOT to have a texting plan? Did you know that you can choose NOT to have internet access on a phone? And get this–it’s cheaper! Its a mind-blowing revelation to some parents, I know.

But as a youth pastor, I also must hop the fence and speak of the good things about students having phones. And in case I didn’t say it before–I’m the top texter on our church staff. And I’m proud of that. It’d be a crying shame for somebody over in the business office to be out-texting a youth pastor. Yep, I love my BlackBerry.

As a youth pastor, there are a few good things about cell phones:
–I can text most of my students and sometimes even get a response.
–I can use cell phones creatively in our student ministry; polls, contests, and even in worship.
–Kids are generally more accessible when they have their own phone.
Other than those, I’m not sure what the good things are. And as I re-read that short list, I’m not sure any of them are non-debatable or couldn’t be achieved through some other medium.

In our student worship services, we ask students to turn their phones off for the duration of the service, to please refrain from texting, and to pull their earbuds out. You’d be shocked (maybe) if you saw some students use of their devices all through the worship service, if we let them.

And speaking of texting, the world of texting puts students into immediate contact and connection with virtually anyone (including people you don’t know or approve of). Their sense of connectedness to their friends, 9 times out of 10 will diminish (or even destroy) their sense of connectedness to their families. While this is certainly one of the teen’s selling points of a texting plan, it is ultimately detrimental to the young person. Resentment toward parents is a clear symptom of a student who is over-connected to social networks and under-connected to family.

And today, with tweens and teens racking up thousands upon thousands of text messages a month (and their parents usually footing the bill), its no wonder why we have a young generation who ooze entitlement, disrespect, and even (some say) outright laziness. The truth is, we’ve handed the world to them when we’ve handed them their phone; a world they’re anything but ready for.

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6 thoughts on “Knick-Knack, Paddy-Whack, Give the Teen a Phone.

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