Fuller Youth Institute | Five Questions About Teens and Digital Media

My husband, Dave, and I have three kids, in 12th, 10th, and 7th grade. Many times we’ve laughed over the fact that every week we face a new question on parenting in the face of our teens’ use of technology. In fact, many of our conversations start in just that way: “How are we going to handle this?”

To celebrate the launch of FYI’s newest resource, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World (a refresh of our popular resource Right Click), we asked parents and youth leaders to send us their biggest questions about parenting in a digital world. The enthusiasm of the responses we received confirms that parents are wanting to tackle these questions before the teenage years, so that they can navigate the issues well in the teenage years.

If you’re a parent of a preschooler or a parent of a college student, I’m pretty sure some of the questions we received are alive and well in your family. And if you’re a youth leader who communicates with parents each week, I’m sure you’ve come across these questions too. Issues around ever-developing media platforms and technologies are so prevalent in the minds of those who care about young people that we want to roll up our sleeves and have an honest conversation, offering some real-live practical answers to the issues you’re navigating every week.

Here are five questions parents and leaders are asking about teens and digital media, and how we responded:

What is the recommended age for kids to get their first phone? Or what is the average age kids are actually receiving their first phone?

Every family handles that differently. In terms of smartphones, the Powell family has a loose rule of age 13, because that’s the lower age limit for a lot of apps and social media platforms. But we were very clear with our kids: it’s not automatic that they will get a smartphone on their 13th birthday. For us, the “right age” depends a lot on responsibility, on how they’ve handled previous boundaries respectfully, and how they’ve demonstrated honesty with us. Our kids have been some of the last kids in their grade to get a smartphone, and we’re okay with that.

How do I convince my teens that they need less screen time without it feeling like punishment?

This question can be tough because the definitions of screen time get really foggy in the preteen and teen years—particularly if they have more than one screen in their life, or need to start using devices to do homework. The most effective way we’ve found to make this boundary feel less like a punishment is to model enjoying downtime or screen-free time ourselves. Kids are watching the way that we live our lives. They notice when we’re distracted by apps and devices as we navigate the mix of work, social interaction, and play. Another strategy is to level with them: point out that you are guiding them to develop basic healthy practices when you insist on uninterrupted sleep or times of social interaction.

What are the best ways to set boundaries for my boys on the internet but not be a helicopter? They won’t always be in our home with our computer settings to guide them.

Start with more boundaries, and then lessen them as your kids get older and show that they can handle it. In the Powell home, during middle school we kept our kids’ devices at night. That’s became more challenging in high school when they need their devices more for homework, and we want to go to bed. We’ve used different filtering software over the years, but what we’ve found is that the best protection is good conversation. Continue to talk with kids, asking them, “What do you think are the right boundaries for you?” Often we’ve found that our kids actually have stricter boundaries than we might have! The endzone is your young adult being on their own, making their own wise choices. Always keep that in mind.

What advice do you have for parents regarding sex education and the potential ease of access to “soft” pornography on popular video sharing sites? And how can parents monitor or filter content without blocking the entire site?

Keep talking. The conversations around sexuality and accessing explicit material have to be conversations, and not just restrictions. Kids will work around restrictions. Teenagers are infamous for being able to get past blockers and filters. Research in this area would say that kids whose parents talk to them about pornography and explicit content as teenagers and young adults are less likely to seek after that material themselves. So keep the conversations going, and if you have filters in place, talk about why. For video games, discuss why you don’t like a particular game. Maybe it’s for the way it objectifies women, for example; let that be a conversation as well. We’ve found that the more we can involve kids in the process, the better.

As a youth leader, how can I best communicate to my students the importance of having healthy boundaries when it comes to technology without demonizing it? And how can I equip parents to come alongside their teens in implementing those boundaries?

Actually, we’d like to flip the question: How can youth pastors help kids have great relationships with their parents in the midst of technology? We know a youth pastor who teaches families the 5 and 15 rule: When you walk in the door, take five minutes to put down devices and talk face to face. Then make sure to spend 15 minutes having an extended conversation some other time during the day (during a meal or in the car, for example). We think this is a fantastic idea to encourage students and parents to strive towards. As parents, if our youth leaders encouraged our kids to set that goal, that would help us so much to win as a family at home.

Today’s teenagers are growing up twice: once in real life, and once virtually. That’s terrifying to think about. The kids in our family, church, and neighborhood are not only navigating the world of face-to-face social relationships we’re familiar with as adults, but they also have an added layer of cultivating and curating an online presence, often on multiple platforms.

The goal we all want to keep in mind is that rather than letting media be something that’s in the middle and drives a wedge in a family’s relationship, we can put relationships in the middle and see media as a way to facilitate that. Research shows that teenagers connect with one another—digitally and in person—because they like being together. Let’s help families do the same by seeing these as tools that can build relationships and support friendship.

Most of all, remember that research on the effects of digital media is still very new. In that sense, we are all winging it as first-time parents and leaders in the digital world. If you feel like you are pioneering these questions, that’s because you are. As you discover new territory when it comes to your kids and digital media, we’re glad we’re along for the ride with you.

We want to talk more about media with our kids, but we’re not always sure how. Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World offers tools to help parents think differently about digital media, talk more about it together, and be inspired by the ideas of other parents navigating these same waters day after day. Invite parents in your ministry to join the community of families who are #navigatingdigitally. 

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Kara Powell, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women to Watch,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences.  Kara is the author or co-author of a number of books including Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Essential Leadership, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS. 

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