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Why John Mark Comer banned his children from having smart phones

New research by Childwise found that more than half of children say they sleep with their mobile phone beside their bed, with most young people now having their own phone by the age of seven. The annual report into children’s use of media also found that seven to 16-year-olds spend an average of three hours and 20 minutes per day on their mobiles.

Following the staggering figures, John Mark Comer, author of The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and an advocate for taking a regular digital ‘Sabbath’ responded to the news and told YCW magazine why his children don’t have phones and won’t until they reach 18.

The fact that we have access to the kind of technology that allows us [and our young people] to talk face to face with friends across the world and access all kinds of information is beautiful. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that the phone has been designed not as a tool, but as an instrument to steal our attention and addict us to it.

The phone is a broad thing, but social media and much more besides has been intentionally engineered to distract you, addict you and to bring you into a cycle of reactivity. Many authors such as Cal Newport or Jaron Lanier who is a Silicon Valley insider who wrote a book titled Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now – discuss how these products have been designed to suck people in to addiction and outrage and anxiety and distraction. And so the problem is not using the phone [to connect with people across the world], it’s the 90% of other things that the phone sucks you into and the way you’re stepping into an ecosystem of interruption technology. It’s intentionally designed to do bad things to you.

Maybe I’m too extreme, but I think therefore my advice to parents is that I don’t think [young people] should have phones, or if they do, I think they should have flip phones to text: “Mum, I’m running late” or “Dad, I’m stuck on the side of the road and its dark, come save me”. But I don’t think for all sorts of reasons that teenagers should have smartphones – I definitely don’t think they should have social media and unbridled access to the Internet.

Let’s set the assumption aside for the moment, because the assumption is: "I have to get my child a smart phone because everyone has one at 13". Where does that assumption come from? Just look at the elite – secular atheists – who refuse to let that happen because they’ve seen behind the curtain. Go to Silicon Valley where the VPs of these companies don’t let their kids have devices because they know what’s behind it.

What I would do? I have a 14-year-old and he’s not expecting a phone because we were very clear from very early on. He knows it’s not coming and when it does, it’ll be a flip phone and not a ‘cool’ phone. There’s a different sense of assumptions that he’s grown up with. So when we chat about it – or more, what is reality? – He knows that the phone is not reality. Even speaking on FaceTime to friends on the other side of the world isn’t really reality. We’re not actually in community with each other or in the same room as somebody.

One of the things that we are trying to do at our church is become the place where [young people] can live free of their phones. We have been playing with this idea… like if you go to a mosque, because it’s a sacred space there’s all these cubbies and people take their shoes off. We’re thinking about doing that for phones! Because [church] is a place to be present.

I think it is a great mistake when parents… compromise and think they have to fully accommodate to the culture to “reach the kids”. One of the most loving things we can do is to help [children] find freedom from digital addiction in community and prayer and in Jesus. All I know is, my kids are quite happy and none of them have phones. They all know they can get a flip phone at 16 and a smartphone at 18 – and that’s just how it is in the Comer household. And even then, they’ll have to buy it! I’m not paying for it…

So if you’re a parent [reading], all I would say is to question the assumptions handed to you by our technological culture. And if you’re a youth pastor, you need to seriously consider that a core part of your job is weaning the beautiful children and teenagers that you serve off of digital addiction to make space in their life for prayer.

This blog post is a transcribed extract from an upcoming episode of the YCW Podcast with John Mark Comer. Keep your eyes peeled on our social media for more information on the podcast episode’s release, but in the meantime... to find out more about the YCW Podcast, visit https://www.youthandchildrens.work/Media/Podcasts.