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David Eaton: Phones for Teens: How to Deal

with David Eaton | October 14, 2022
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The drawbacks and dangers of phones for teens can feel intimidating. Author David Eaton offers tips to turn teen's phones from a liability to an asset.
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The drawbacks and dangers of phones for teens can feel intimidating. Author David Eaton offers tips to turn teen’s phones from a liability to an asset.

David Eaton: Phones for Teens: How to Deal

With David Eaton
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October 14, 2022
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Ann: Hey, before we get to today’s program, I want you to know that Dave and I were perfect parents. [Laughter]

Dave: —until we had a child. [Laughter]

Ann: Exactly [Laughter]  And we used to think there were perfect parents, but there are [in unison with Dave] no perfect parents. That’s why we wrote the book, No Perfect Parents; and we’re excited because, now, we have an online video course for you. You can go through it as small group, individually, or even just as a couple. To get that, you can go to FamilyLife.com/NotPerfect to find out more; again, FamilyLife.com/NotPerfect.

David: For all of you first-born moms and dads out there, who are listening to this right now, and you are like, “I’m going to keep my kids’ phone locked down forever,” the last thing you want to hear them whisper is: “I can’t wait to leave home—I can’t wait until I am 18—I’m going to get out of this place and do whatever I want.”

 

Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.

Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.

Dave: So when we were parents of teenagers—we’ve already said we thought it was awesome, although we were scared to death because every parent told us, “Look out for the teen years,”—and yet—

Ann: —so fun.

Dave: —but here is the thing: when we raised our three boys, there was not a thing called a smartphone; it was just about to come out. I think, today, it is a whole different conversation.

Ann: It’s a game-changer for sure.

Dave: I mean, you talk about being scared—I mean, again, the smartphone is a gift from God in some ways; it’s wonderful—but like anything, there is a curse to it as well. So we need help—helping parents raise kids in a culture that is different than it was in our day—we’ve got the man, the legend, in the studio. [Laughter]

David Eaton is back from AXIS. AXIS is all about helping parents and teenagers navigate this world we live in. Welcome back!

David: It’s good to be back.

Ann: His book is amazing—I think every parent should get this—Engaging Your Teen’s World: Understanding What Today’s Youth Are Thinking, Doing, and Watching. As a parent of a teen, this is a book you need to have on your bookshelf.

David: And it’s a book that you should skim—you should read some; you should grab a chapter—because the first half is all about building a connection/a heart connection with your kid. The second half, we’re talking smartphones; and college; and social media; and Fortnite; and Minecraft; and LGBTQ, and all of these big gnarly conversations.

What is interesting about all of these conversations that come up is that they all revolve around the smartphone. The smartphone is the greatest leap of human agency that you will have in your lifetime, currently. When you give your nine-year-old or your thirteen-year-old or your twelve-year-old or your seventeen-year-old a smartphone for the first time, it’s going to be just an entirely different way to be human.

Dave: Well, I’ve got a riddle for you.

David: You know, it’s actually my riddle for you. [Laughter]

Dave: No, I’ve got one for you—like, David, I was thinking—“I want to give my kid a smartphone. It’s the thing we’re supposed to do. How old should my child be before I give it to them?”

David: You’re right; that was the question I asked you as we left the previous show.

Dave: I’m guessing you have the right answer. Let’s try and answer it. He did ask us that yesterday; I don’t even know what Ann would say.

David: Because I’m like tenacious on this: I’m going to make you answer anyway. I’m a dog on a bone on this. This is the number-one question: “What age?”—and this is a huge trick question; okay?— “What age should you get your kid a smartphone?”

Ann: I have no idea. [Laughter] How’s that?!

Dave: Well, it is interesting, as you know, the movie, The Social Dilemma—the founders of Facebook®—some of the people, who invented some of this stuff, are saying, “Wait.” They are saying it should be older—“Don’t give…”—if I remember it right—they don’t have an eight-year-old/ten-year-old in their family with a smartphone. They are like, “That’s too early.”

I think, ten years ago, I would have said ten years old/twelve years old. Now, I’m like, “I know it’s probably impossible—parents are like, ‘There is no way I can keep my 13-year-old daughter from a smartphone,’—but I would say it needs to be 13/14 years old.”

Ann: Oh, I think that is early. I think it depends.

David: It depends on what?

Ann: It depends on the child’s age, maturity; maybe, we have the kids pay for it: “Can they afford it?” So there are a lot of questions I would want to know. I hope you have some answers for us.

David: But I mean, what if your nine-year-old is at soccer practice, and they move the field, and they get out early: “Don’t you want to know where she is at?”—that’s your little girl.

Dave: She can text you with a dumb phone. [Laughter] It doesn’t need to be on the internet.

David: So it is a trick question—because the question is: “What age should I get my kid a phone?”—it assumes two things that aren’t true:

  • The first thing is that it assumes that your kid doesn’t already have a phone. Your kid already has a phone—if their friends have a phone—your kid has a phone.
  • The second thing is that it assumes that, when you get your kid a phone, that they are going to have 100 percent access to it/that they can do whatever they want. It’s just like, “Hey, it’s your 12th birthday; here is a new phone,” or “Hey, Dad got a new phone; so you can have my old phone.”


That’s where it gets into this marvelous conversation that we should totally have about the smartphone—is that a lot of wisdom is needed in that space of where you say—“No, I’m going to allow you to have a little bit of access to this, and I’m going to slowly release this to you.”

I think there are four essential smartphone conversations that parents have to have. We talk about this in the book, Engaging Your Teen’s World. I would say the first thing is that it’s very tempting to think of technology as neutral and just say: “Oh, everything is neutral—the smartphone is neutral—it’s not good; it’s not bad. It’s just powerful and complicated,” as Sherry Turkle would say from MIT. Originally, at AXIS, we agreed with her. We were like, “Oh, yes, the smartphone isn’t good or bad; it is neutral. It’s just like all technology is neutral.”

Then we took a step back, and we thought for a second, “Wait; did God make a neutral world?” Neutral would be the vantage point of saying, “It’s a random world that we just showed up in out of ex nihilo. So here we are—there was a big bang that happened; there are just random atoms colliding together—and now, we have humans; and humans make smartphones, so it’s just neutral.”

No, that is not the story that we believe about the world; that’s not the history we believe. We believe that God made the world very good; and then, it becomes cursed; and then, through Jesus, there is a possibility of redemption and reconciliation. So the first conversation to have with your kid is:

  • “How is anything very good?” “How is it messed up?” and “How can we redeem it as a family?”—especially if you are the parent, who [fears] often. And it’s easy to [be fearful]; right? 

So there is this mom, and she is like, “I’ve got my girls’”—she’s got twin girls—“I got them a smartphone—I got them both a smartphone—they’ve been begging me for it. They’ve been beating me down; I finally got them a smartphone.” She says, “My daughters weren’t looking for the darkness, but the darkness was looking for them.”

What did she mean by that? Some—I think her daughters were in junior high—and some junior or senior in high school started texting them immediately and started asking them for nude photos, immediately. All of a sudden, this mom is like, “What have I done?! I’ve gotten them…” So she snatches the phone away—which, of course, the girls hated—because can you imagine missing out on half the jokes? Can you imagine just not being able to have that conversation? You are left out of the inside jokes.

All of a sudden, if you don’t get your kid a smartphone, they are missing out on half the conversations; and how good does it feel to be left out when you are in junior high or high school? It feels terrible.

How old are your grandkids?

Ann: Seven.

Dave: The oldest is seven.

David: Okay.

Ann: The youngest is one.

David: So it will be something else; but there is going to come a time, where they are in that position.

Let me hit the three other really important conversations—so there are four really important conversations—one big action step. I’ll say the big action step—I’ll just get it out—is that:

“You have to write down what your family believes about the phone; it has to be written down.”

Don’t feel shame if you haven’t done it yet; and don’t feel shame if you got it for your kid, eons ago/got them a phone, eons ago. That’s the number-one thing to do, where you write down a family pledge, or a family contract, or a family whatever—you can call it whatever you want—what’s important is that it is written down, and you start having that conversation. You can beat up the document; it’s not like in stone.

Ann: Give us an example: “What’s that conversation start and look like?”

David: There are eight smartphone domains—eight different areas—four of them are purely philosophical, and four of them are technical. The philosophical ones are:

  • “Are there non-negotiables?”

It’s really important for you to say to your kid: “You are not going to look at porn on your phone”; but then you come back and say, “This is what I want you to do when someone says, ‘Look at this.’” You just have to get ahead of it. Look, we’re parents; we can handle the awkwardness.

Ann: When do you think that conversation starts?

David: Now—it always happens now—and then, it keeps happening.

So the first four are philosophical—so you have non-negotiables—a very important non-negotiable: “You shouldn’t send a nude photo.” Well, that’s just not a conversation that we had to have when we were kids. What a beautiful place to be—as a mom, or a dad, or a grandma, or a grandpa, or as a youth pastor—to say: “You are loved. You are important. You are valuable. You are beautiful. You are desirable. This is not the way to express that.” That is the non-negotiable; there are all kinds of non-negotiables.

  • The second thing is money: “Who is paying for this?” “Who is paying for it when it breaks?” “Who is paying for cases?” “Who is paying for data plans?”—that just needs to be out there.
  • Third thing is location: “Can you have a phone in bed at night?” “Can you have the phone in the bathroom?” “Can you have the phone in the shower?” “Can you have the phone at church?” “Can you have the phone before your homework is done?” “Can you have the phone on the weekend?”—all those giant conversations.

Ann: So these are family conversations?

David: Yes; every family can choose what they want. You say, “No phone at the dinner table.” They might say, “Okay, Mom; fine. No phone at the dinner table for you either”; you know?

  • Then the fourth one is time: “Just how much time do I get to have on that?” All of these are philosophical.

The four that are technical are:

  • App store
  • Social media
  • Internet browser
  • Texting.

All four of those have different rules of engagement, and all four of those can take you to the worst places of being a human. All four of those can malform you as a person; but they are also great ways to interact.

Just like you would never say, “Oh! It’s amazing! It’s your 16th birthday. I know we haven’t done driver’s ed yet—I know we haven’t trained at all—but here are the keys to my pickup truck. You turned 16; you earned it.” Guess what? I’ll actually tell you I know exactly where you were the morning of your 16th birthday—you were at the DMV, waiting in line; because Ann, what did a car represent for you?

Ann: Freedom.

David: It was your freedom.

The smartphone is the new vehicle, so that is why you don’t see a 16-year-old waiting outside the DMV on their 16th birthday; because they already got their freedom. For us, our cars were the greatest leap in human agency for our life. For that ten-year-old, which is the average age of getting a new smartphone, that is the greatest leap of human agency.


Conversation number one is: “Very good—cursed and redeemed—‘How can we do it as a family?’”

Conversation number two—I’m going to give these to you quickly—

  • “What is it for?” We outline this in the book, Engaging Your Teen’s World; we outline it longer in Smartphone Sanity. “What is it for?” is just talking about the purpose behind it.

If you can come to agreement that—“The phone is supposed to draw us closer together,”—and yet, dad is on email; and mom is on Pinterest, or Facebook, or Instagram; and the daughter is doom-scrolling on TikTok, then, all of a sudden—you are like, “This is not what it is for!” Also, it’s pretty cool—I can touch my phone in a certain way—and a pizza will be delivered to my door. [Laughter] That’s pretty awesome; that’s amazing.

So the first one: “Very good/cursed; ‘How can we redeem it as a family?’” invites it into a new narrative; and it starts with celebration.

The second thing is all about: “What is the purpose of this?” “What is it for?”

  • The third thing is: “Driver’s ed.” It’s the idea of wisdom.

For all of you firstborn moms and dads out here, who are listening to this right now, and you’re like, “I’m going to keep my kid’s phone locked down forever,” the last thing you want to hear them whisper is: “I can’t wait to leave home—I can’t wait until I am 18—I’m going to get out of this place; I’m going to do whatever I want.”

You need to have a position of: “When you get a phone,”—whoever pays for it; however they pay for it—all the other things that are figured out—“we want you to demonstrate to us that you are responsible and awesome. We want to have no limits that we impose on your phone, at some point, while you still live in our house.” Then you cross your fingers, and you hope that they will self-regulate. You hope they will say, “Hey, Dad, I actually do want to be under accountability.”

So the fourth conversation is this: You’ve got to tell your kids over, and over, and over, and over again—you need to say, “You can tell me anything,”—you just say that to your three-year-olds, and your seven-year-olds, and your seventeen-year-old—“You can tell me anything,” “You can tell me anything.” Then you’ve just got to hope that it kind of hits them, and hits them, and hits them—and they absorb it, and they absorb it, and they absorb it—and they start saying, “Maybe, they are actually being honest; I can tell them anything.” One day, they are going to tell you anything. You’ve got to practice your “I’m not shocked” face. [Laughter]

At AXIS, we like to say: “The unexamined faith is not worth believing.” You’ve said, “There are certain things that are better,”—therefore—"I’m not going to have/for me, I’m not going to have email on my phone—not because you can do a whole lot of bad with email—but you can work, all day long. I don’t want to be the dad, who is working, all day long, on his phone.”

Dave: So you don’t have email on your phone?

David: No, I do not.

Dave: Way to go!

David: But that—I’m not trying to virtue signal—because you’ve just got to figure out: “What is that app for you?” You’re modeling that to your kids; that is a great way to say, “Look, I’m leading by example here.”

You say: “What if your kid doesn’t have the Holy Spirit?” or “…whether your kid doesn’t have a compass?” Well there, actually—and this has been an interesting thing we’ve been watching at AXIS; and we haven’t thought it through yet—multiple stories that I have heard in the past week—where a parent says, “My oldest kid was off the deep end with social media. We had a hard conversation,”—and they are like—“And my youngest kid doesn’t even want social media.” You have a whole new generation—who says: “I don’t want to manage that!”/who says: “This is not life to me!”—says: “This is some game that someone else is profiteering.”

There is a whole sociological/there is a whole psychological case that could be made that just says: “This is actually hurting our humanity”; but there is a great balance that could be found in there. That is why the fourth conversation—“You can tell me anything,”—you want them to come to you. If they can’t come to you, they are going to go to someone else.

We want that conversation to happen, even when it comes to social media. A great thing you could choose to do is say: “At some point, we’re going to let you have one. Why don’t you pick one?” Okay, well, once they pick one, you say:

“Well, I don’t want you to post anything yet; I want you to show me what you are posting.”

“MOM!” [Laughter]

“Well, you just want to post a picture of your awesome birthday party—which is great, which shows everyone who came to the party; what a great time they are having—and everyone who was left out, because we can’t invite the entire school, what they are missing out on. I want you to post a different picture, because we don’t want your other friends, who weren’t here, to feel left out.”

Well, you’d never get to that point [if you didn’t follow that].

One other thing you can know is that there is so much pain in the smartphone space—one, AXIS is here to help you with that—but two, there are new products being released every single year to try to help remedy this: you have the Gabb phone; you have the Pinwheel phone; you have the Light phone; you have the Wisephone. AXIS’s current favorite phone is the Pinwheel phone.

I think every kid’s second phone should be an iPhone® because that is what they want—maybe, it is Android; that’s three or four or five percent—but their first phone: you can get them some training wheels—not going to work if they are 16—probably not going to work if they are 13—but with that 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-old, that dumb phone—because, by the way, if you go and say, “I want to buy a flip phone,” they are going to charge you as much for a flip phone as they are going to charge you for an iPhone. You’ll be like, “What?!” They’ll be like, “Yes, because we want you on this different device.” But there are other devices that are out there that are a great baby step, and our recommendation right now would be the Pinwheel Phone.

Ann: So driver’s training.

David: Yes, driver’s ed.

Ann: We are teaching them/equipping them to be safe.

Dave: Yes; and if there is one thing I read in your book—and you’ve said over and over in the last couple of days—is engage; engage—have conversations; listen. I mean, seriously, parents of teenagers often are afraid of that very step; and sometimes, it’s a scary step to walk down the hall, at 10 o’clock at night or whatever, open their door, and sit on the end of their bed, and say, “Hey, let’s talk.” But that conversation is going to be a lifetime conversation.

Ann: And I think to ask our kids, “How are you doing? I want to know how you are doing. What can I do to help you?”—those conversations; and especially praying over your kids and for your kids—together, as a couple, if you are married—that’s life-changing too.

David: And to something that is even more exciting is having a teenager in your home is like having tech support that lives inside your house.

Ann: That’s SO true.

David: So just ask them for help. At some point, you want to be like, “This phone could be the greatest adversary in our relationship, but I need your help. You’re good at this; you understand how it works. Help me with this new…”—and there is always going to be something new. They are going to be great if there is that trust there—if there is an understanding around what’s going on to work together towards that—and actually, have the phone draw you closer together as a family.

Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with David Eaton on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear some final reflections from Dave and Ann in just a minute; but first, David Eaton’s book is called Engaging Your Teen’s World: Understanding What Today’s Youth Are Thinking, Doing, and Watching. You can get your copy at FamilyLifeToday.com.


When we engage well with our teens—and look at them as trusted partners when it comes to everything from walking with God to, as he said, tech support—godly, strong bonds can be built with them that nurture health, joy; and honestly, a spirit of fun and forgiveness.

When it comes to forgiveness, we think one of the best modern resources you can learn from on the subject is Brant Hansen’s book called Unoffendable. We want to send you a copy as our gift to you when you financially partner today with FamilyLife. You can give online at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

Alright; here are Dave and Ann, reflecting on their time, talking with David Eaton about parenting teenagers.

Dave: We just spent three days talking with David Eaton about parenting teenagers.

Ann: —which was super fun to talk to him.

Dave: That’s what I want to know: “What did you think?”

Ann: Well, he is so wise; there are so many good things that he said. I can imagine myself, with teenagers, furiously writing down notes and “Don’t forget to do this,” and “Make sure I know about this.”

Dave: He had a lot of content.

Ann: It was so good, but it can feel overwhelming. I’m just thinking of parents of teens feeling overwhelmed at times, not knowing where to start or what to do. One of the things I just put down was: “We loved the teen years!—loved them!” I think the best thing we did was we walked with Jesus; and we sought Him for everything, for His wisdom. I know that David would say he is doing the same things.


The other thing I was thinking, too—when I can get overwhelmed or, maybe, a parent can get overwhelmed—is have fun. Seriously, these years are so much fun—create an atmosphere of joy/laughter—play games, mess around. These teen years go quickly. So I would say—

Dave: You were the Queen of Fun. Now, you are the Queen of Fun with the grandkids.

Ann: Joy is a magnet, and it draws our kids home.

Dave: It draws your teenagers home. They don’t want to be at someone else’s house; they want to be at our house.

I think what he reminded me of was how much our teenagers want us, as parents, in their life. We feel like they are pushing us away—they are thinking we are stupid and out of touch, and they don’t want to be with us; they just want to be away from us and with their friends—and he reminded me that: “No,”—I mean, we said it in our No Perfect Parents book: “The key to parenting teenagers is relationship. They want a relationship.” Everything they say and do may look like they don’t; they really do.

He called it: “the hunger to be with,”—W-I-T-H—They want to be with us even though it feels like they don’t. So I think, “Man, seize the moment to figure out anyway you can to hang with your teenagers,”—on a date with your daughters or hanging with your sons. They want our influence.

Ann: That is such a good reminder. It reminds me—like my parents were not perfect by any means; but my favorite place to be, as a teenager, was at our house—I loved being—

Dave: Yes, everybody wanted to be at your house.

Ann: They did because it was fun; wasn’t it?

Dave: Yes, and your dad treated us, as teenagers, like adults—he really did—not in a poor way; in a good way—you felt important; you felt seen; you felt heard—you felt like, “Man, I have ideas that are respected.” You felt like an adult, and I think that drew teenagers to your house. I think you did the same thing with our boys.

Ann: You did too.

Dave: I think David reminded us: “That’s what God wants us, as parents, to do.” It isn’t the youth pastor’s job to be with our kids—although that is a good thing—it is our job to disciple our kids. He has equipped us to do it, and we can do it better than anybody. So fall on your knees, and connect with Jesus, and then say, “Jesus overflow what we have—You and me—to my kids.”

Shelby: Are you working overtime, trying to get your life together? I think we have all been a little too reliant on ourselves. You know, coming up next week on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson will be joined by author and hip-hop artist Jackie Hill Perry to tell us one big reason it is so difficult for us to trust God; that is next week.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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