Getting Smart on Kids’ Smartphone Use: Catholic Parents Seek Virtue and Teaching Moments in Varying Responses to Big Tech

While approaches may differ, there’s underlying agreement that the challenges of smartphones and social media require an intentional gameplan for limiting harm to kids and teens, but also helping them grow in responsible freedom.

Catholic parents weigh the pros and cons, positives and pitfalls of teens using smartphones.
Catholic parents weigh the pros and cons, positives and pitfalls of teens using smartphones. (photo: Unsplash)

For Kristjana Underhill of Norwalk, Connecticut, saying “No” to smartphones for her six children is akin to locking the doors at night: a basic safety rule to protect her family. All of the Underhill children are phone-free until high school, at which point they’re given the option of having a “dumb phone,” or one that lacks access to the internet. So far, two of Underhill’s three teens have gone that route and use their phones just to call or text.

Underhill credits talks by older parents and priests for convincing her and her husband, Chris, to keep smartphones out of their homes.

“I remember one speaker saying something along the lines of, ‘You wouldn’t let a total stranger into your home, so why equip the kids with a device that’s going to allow many strangers to access your home?’ It really hit home with me,” she said.

A supportive community helps: The Underhills attend a small Catholic classical school, with a policy that requires students’ phones to be turned in at the beginning of the day. It’s not foolproof, but it “mostly works,” Underhill said, and it means her teens “don’t face the same pressures as their public-school peers.”

They’re not alone — wider society is starting to notice “The Parents Saying No,” and scientific studies and commentary alike are increasingly pointing the finger at social media’s role in teens’ increasing feelings of “persistent sadness and hopelessness.” Even so, the Underhills’ commitment to no smartphones at all is still very rare. In 2022, Pew Research found that 95% of American teens had their own.

That number, though, includes a spectrum of approaches to usage and restrictions, including among Catholic families. Most parents, it would seem, are aware of negative drawbacks of putting smartphones in their children’s hands, even as they find practical, or even inescapable, reasons for allowing their use anyway. How are they managing the balance?

A Locked-Down, ‘Helpful Tool’

The Demko family recently bought a smartphone for their oldest, a 15-year-old who attends their local Catholic high school in Lansing, Michigan.

“After driving 45 minutes to a track meet with a newborn and missing my son’s event because I didn’t know what he was running, I convinced my husband it was time,” said Laura Demko, a mother of six.

The phone mostly lives at home, has no social-media apps, and stays in the kitchen overnight. For now, their son is only allowed to text his parents and only takes it to school when he has sports.

“It’s basically an iPhone functioning as a dumb phone,” Demko explained, though she knows the reins will be loosened down the road. “So far, it’s going well and has been a helpful tool.”

For iOs devices like the Demkos’ phone, Apple’s “Screen Time” feature can monitor and restrict usage, from setting time limits to only allowing certain contacts to call or text the phone. Microsoft “Family Safety” offers similar restrictions for Android users, and Google’s “Family Link” is available for both Android and Apple, depending on what version of operating system the phone is on. All three of the above options are free. There are a multitude of other parental-controls apps, some available as a paid subscription.

Kathy Bielecki has similar, locked-down phone rules for her 16-year-old daughter, who goes to public school outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. They progressed from a basic phone in eighth grade, which can only make calls and text, to a smartphone by the end of her daughter's freshman year, finding certain apps necessary for clocking in at work and tracking hours for driver’s education.

Her few apps include a running app and Spotify; no social media, and the phone’s parental controls include a password-protected firewall and filter program. Like at the Demkos’, the phone stays in the kitchen overnight to charge.

“She understands the phone is ours, and I do check her messages periodically,” Bielecki said.

From her home outside the Twin Cities, in Minnesota, Nicki Storm lists a host of practical reasons why her older children have smartphones, albeit with more restrictions than their peers.

“I think phones can be good,” Storm said. She likes knowing everyone’s locations through the “Life360” app. Their Catholic high school heavily uses social media to communicate, and once her children start varsity sports in seventh grade, the teams use an app for group messaging.

“The kids without phones get left out” of crucial communications, Storm explained.

For Storm’s fifth-grade daughter, having her own smartphone is essential to managing her Type 1 diabetes independently. “She wouldn’t be able to use her glucose monitor or insulin pump without her phone.”

At that age, the Storms draw the line at social media, despite her daughter’s complaints that she’s one of the only people in her friend group not on TikTok or Snapchat.

Storm acknowledges the tension between protecting her children and giving them chances to learn. “We just slowly give more to them in terms of freedom so by high school they’re more equipped to handle the issues of social media.”

‘Trust as the Boundary’

Katie Kimball, a mother of four in Byron Center, Michigan, and educator on children’s health, uses the phrase “gradual release of responsibility” to describe how she and and her husband, Kris, approach parenting, including technology use.

With young children and screen time in general, this means strict limits on time and usage, Kimball explained. But as children get older, they keep the end in mind: “We want independent young adults who know how to use self-discipline and control when they are presented with screens.”

For the Kimballs, this has meant starting their teens on stripped-down phones. (She reviewed two options on her blog, KitchenStewardship.com.) At the same time, she said, they cultivate a family culture that values “people over screens,” have conversations about smartphones’ addictive nature, and point out antisocial, phone-related behavior.

The kids once invited a friend to jump on their trampoline, she remembered, but he kept taking his phone out, to the point where her children noticed the impact it had on their time together.

“They were all a bit miffed,” she said.

It turned into a learning opportunity, though, and another chance to reiterate that “whoever is in front of you is more important” than what’s happening on your screen.

Around the age of 15 or 16, the Kimballs give their teens smartphones. They don’t use parental passwords to restrict downloads, but have clear expectations of use.

One: If you download any social-media app without permission, “you would lose your phone for quite a long time.” Two: The Kimball parents know every screen password. While they aren’t checking texts regularly, the kids “need to know that we can at any time.” Three: No phones stay in bedrooms overnight.

Kimball has also kept her 15-year-old daughter off social media, citing research linking depressive symptoms in girls to their social-media usage, at twice the rate as boys.

Overall, Kimball sees these years as formative: a chance to teach balance when it comes to the goods and dangers of technology and to model it as parents.

Smartphone
Responsible phone use is a skill parents are teaching amid digital-minded modern life.(Photo: Unsplash)


“We try to use relationships and trust as the boundary, as opposed to a super high level of restrictions,” she said. Going back to balance, though, they’re not afraid “to yank back the privilege” of having a smartphone if trust is broken.

“It’s got to be super clear to the kids that … the parent is going to help you build that self-control,” Kimball said. “And sometimes that may mean enacting a consequence and removing the temptation from the situation.”


From Cyber-Safe to Cyber-Wise

Jennifer Frey changed her mind on keeping her teenagers off social media.

“While I can respect parents who enforce a total ban,” she said, “that didn’t work for our family.”

Frey, who is a professor of philosophy and dean of the Honors College at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is still adamant that children under age 13 stay off social media, and only her two oldest children — 17 and almost 16 — have their own smartphones. Their usage is monitored, including random phone checks and limited access at night. But her previous rule of no social media “proved to be pretty damaging” to her teens and her relationship with them.

Almost all their friends’ plans were being made on social media, she said, including rides to and from sports, so her kids were becoming socially isolated. Frey would be roped “into the role of their personal secretary,” and “it created way too much friction” between herself and them.

“We decided we needed to try to live with social media,” she said. In addition to restrictions, that decision has come with frank discussions about the pitfalls and dangers of being online, as well as what constitutes inappropriate internet behavior. Her teens follow her on social media, making her “more intentional about how I use those platforms,” she said. “This is good for me too!”

Last year, Frey wrote for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute about the need for young people’s education to include how to act virtuously online. Even if there were a legally enforceable minimum age for creating social-media accounts (although most social-media platforms restrict under-13-year-olds from creating accounts, age-verification checks are easy to get around), Frey argued that teens still need to be taught “to be not only cyber-savvy and cyber-safe, but also cyber-wise — by which I mean exercising good practical judgment” in the ever-changing digital landscape.

What does it take to cultivate that wisdom? Time, Frey wrote — and the chances to “learn from those who are living well,” as well as from mistakes.

“Parents need to exercise prudence in this area, as with any other,” Frey told the Register. “I think teens can use social media well, despite the dangers, but they cannot do it without intentional guidance and help.”

Nicki Storm, the Twin Cities mother still holding off on TikTok, agrees.

“We’re just trying our best,” she said. “You cannot out-parent free will. We can only give them tools to help them make good choices.”

Boundaries like screen limits or a password to download apps are good, but not the final goal.

“Is it perfect? No. Will they still mess up? Probably,” Storm acknowledged. “But I’m trying to teach healthy screen habits and create an environment where love and mercy are our cornerstones and open communication is not punished.”

Father Alberto Reyes has emerged as a critical voice against the extreme poverty and repressive actions of Cuba's police state.

Cuba’s Government Shuts Down Priest’s Peaceful Protest

The Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba “manages the different aspects of religious life” in the country, as noted in the 2023 Religious Freedom Report of Aid to the Church in Need.