In August of 2020, our oldest (twins), Zach and Emma, began their freshman year. Two years later, their brother, Matthew, would join them in the high school ranks. Ever since they started kindergarten, we had been talking to them about the media/tech world, and trying to help them understand the risks and benefits that came with this domain. As they progressed through grade school, we discussed in detail the various choices that we were making when it came to our decisions regarding their access to technology.
By the time they had entered into high school, Zach and Emma were the only ones (that we knew of) without a mobile device, and certainly one of a very few that were not on social media. In addition, while most of their friends had consoles at home, their gaming activities were largely confined to a couple of simple computer games. While they interacted with their friends on certain chat features, like on Google, it was clear from the beginning that our kids high school existence was going to be much different than their peers.
The months and years progressed, and our conversations continued around the choices we were making for them. And they weren’t always friendly and agreeable, even in the silence. But at every juncture, we continued to communicate why we as parents were making these decisions―not to be strict or heavy-handed, but rather that we felt it was the best choice for them and their future, from a theological, scientific, and experiential standpoint. We worked to find ways to offset the limits on their communication, whether by setting up different activities with peers/families or offering alternative ways (not always well-received) of keeping connected with their peers. It hasn’t been easy.
As our kids remained actively engaged in sports, academic, and social functions, they discovered that their friends became accepting of their communication differences, if not without a well-placed joke or jab at times. Understanding that it was our choice, not theirs, it seems that just as our kids learned to be more flexible in their communication, so did their peers, too. And life kept rolling, as did the activities, engagements, and friendships. What a couple of years before seemed like a huge deal gradually became part of the landscape, even if at times not having a device or social media remained inconvenient (even for us as parents).
And then, just like that, senior year was upon us, and we got a call from the guidance counselor at Mater Dei passing along the fun news. Emma had been voted onto the fall senior homecoming court as well as her sophomore brother, Matthew. It wasn’t the first time that we had gotten this news, as in the spring prior, Zach had been on the junior court. Meanwhile, as college season was upon us, Emma found herself writing her essay for the common app and also specific pieces related to scholarship applications. As she noted,
I am called to act with intentionality. For seventeen years I have not had a phone or social media of any kind. As awkward and embarrassing as this has been, I have realized that acting with intention allows me to live with natural joy and deep purpose without the distractions of a device. I desire to spend my time on matters that are important, so avoiding the superficiality that comes with being constantly connected to a phone or social media allows me to strive towards my authentic self. As much as a struggle this has been, it has been one of the most rewarding and impactful pieces of my life.
A couple of weeks prior to homecoming, I received an email from a close friend, and the only other person I know my age (other than myself) that doesn’t have a mobile device. As a college professor at a local university, he is part of a board that reviews applications of high school seniors for one of the most prestigious scholarships in the state of Indiana. One of the questions on the application was “What invention would you stop from being invented?” More than any other response, such as nuclear bombs, pollutants, or anything else, two answers made up a majority of responses: cigarettes/vaping and social media/cell phones.
In a very short time, our oldest will be entering their final semester of high school. We let them know that for Christmas, we would be happy to buy them a mobile device: smartphone, dumbphone, or otherwise. They have earned it. Less than a year from turning eighteen, they will have many decisions to make about what their life will be like, not just about college but far beyond this. Like any parents of children about to cross the official threshold of adulthood, we are excited and nervous for what is to come.
No matter where they are called, we hope they are not distracted by the glimmering trends of our modern world, and seek out an intentional, authentic, and faithful existence. Whether or not that will involve having a smartphone or using social media, well, that is up to them. But we hope that for all the time they have graced us with their presence―as children of God―in our home, they understood that we loved them enough to make decisions that might have not been popular, and certainly weren’t easy, but were grounded in honoring the beautifully divine beings that they are. And we hope they knew, as other parents with children just behind them have told us, that in their embarrassment and inconvenience, they were leaders of a revolution―of the most loving kind.