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How to Reach a Generation Lost in Their Smartphones

  • Joel Ryan Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 25, 2019
How to Reach a Generation Lost in Their Smartphones

To say that teens spend a considerable amount of time on their cell phones might be the understatement of the year.

You’ve probably seen it before: a teen sits at a restaurant with family, earbuds in, head down, eyes glued to the phone, thumbs furiously typing away. That teen is completely and utterly absorbed in with what’s happening on the screen but completely disconnected from everything and everyone nearby.

We see it everywhere. This disconnect happens in restaurants, schools, and even in the home. We’re now starting to see it in our churches and youth groups too.

How do parents, teachers, and particularly youth pastors engage their teens in a world that relies so heavily on smartphone technology for everyday living? Here are a few perspectives on screen addiction as it relates to teens:

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Remember, a phone is no longer just a phone.

Remember, a phone is no longer just a phone.

Take a look at the average smartphone and all it does.

  • Text messaging
  • Social media
  • Gaming
  • Maps
  • Music
  • Fitness tracking
  • Photography
  • Shopping
  • The Bible

These resources have been consolidated into a single handheld device most teens carry with them everywhere they go. Having access to this much information, entertainment, and communication isn’t inherently bad. It can help us accomplish much.

Excessive cell phone usage becomes a concern, however, when our teens become so reliant on or even addicted to that device that they begin to disconnect from God, others, and the world around them.

Studies have shown that those dealing with screen addiction are more prone to depression, anxiety, and even insomnia. These symptoms are magnified in teens and children.

As a youth pastor or adult who works with teens, you will soon face a generation of screen addicts who may or may not recognize how entangled their lives have become with their phones.

How do we minister to a generation who just can’t seem to put their phones down?

Photo Credit: Pixabay/Jan-Vašek

1. Define the addiction.

1. Define the addiction.

We must first understand that not every teen is or will become addicted to their phone. Excessive usage is a warning sign for sure. But it’s when the individual begins to disconnect from others, becomes unable to abstain, and experiences impairment of behavioral control that we have a problem.

Not every addiction is the same. Many teens, like adults, suffer from addictions that go beyond their phones. But what exactly are our teens addicted to?

  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Pornography
  • Social Media

These are addictions that can be amplified by the instant accessibility provided by smart phones, but the phone itself may not be the addiction.

It’s quite possible that your teen is spending far too much time on their phone because they are using it to feed another addiction. If so, that addiction needs to be identified and addressed with care. Removing or restricting the phone may not be enough. The problem may be much deeper than that.

Know always that there is freedom in Christ to overcome all addiction, hurts, and hang-ups (Galatians 5:8). I would highly recommend consulting with your senior pastor to find and partner with resources for helping teens address their underlying addictions when these concerns arise.

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2. Encourage teens to sow seeds for the fruits of patience.

2. Encourage teens to sow seeds for the fruits of patience.

Studies have shown that many teens can become addicted to their phones and the satisfaction they get from using them.

But why? Why is screen addiction such an epidemic among our teens?

New research has revealed that the ping of a new text message or buzz of an incoming call can trigger a dopamine drip in the brain similar to what happens when someone gets a hit from a drug. It feeds the individual’s desire for connection, and that momentary high and those that follow is what can eventually lead to addiction if not managed properly.

Screen addiction develops from the instant gratification smart phones provide. Teens crave instant gratification because they are constantly being told what they cannot have in life.

  • A car
  • Money
  • Responsibility
  • Jobs
  • Sex

Smart phones can offer access to information, entertainment, and social connection that teens don’t have to work for or even wait for. They provide a certain sense of empowerment our teens may not get anywhere else, and that feels good.

Part of what we need to be encouraging and developing in our teens, however, is delayed gratification, which comes through patience.

We live in a have-it-your-way and have-it-now society. Screen addiction is only a symptom of a much larger issue. People refuse to wait.

Patience, however, is a spiritual fruit that needs time to grow (Galatians 5:22-25). Does constant screen exposure encourage patience or foster anxiety, depression, and impatience?

Let teens answer that question by examining the fruit of their phone habits for themselves (Galatians 6:7, Luke 6:45).

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3. Inspire teens to embrace silence as part of their momentum.

3. Inspire teens to embrace silence as part of their momentum.

One of the things that troubles me most about screen addiction is that teens are never bored. Smart phones make it possible for them to always have something to do.

It may sound crazy, but our teens may need to learn how to embrace boredom once in a while.

Right now, when a teen is bored, they’re programmed to pull out their phones and start browsing or skimming. But how much of that time is actually productive?

What if instead of browsing, they learned to sit and embrace silence?

What if instead of looking down, they looked up and took a look at the world around them and interacted with those in it? (Philippians 4:8)

What if we taught them how to sit in silent prayer, meditate, or journal and just wait on the Lord instead of constantly checking their phones? (Psalms 1:1-2)

When we turn to our phones, we aren’t turning away from God, we are telling Him we’ll get to Him later.

Remember, Satan doesn’t need a full-blown addiction to pull us away from God. A subtle, daily distraction like mindless phone browsing can be just as effective over time (Colossians 3).

Minutes add up and small moments matter in creating or destroying momentum.  

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4. Ask teens to affirm their priorities and challenge them to stay accountable.

4. Ask teens to affirm their priorities and challenge them to stay accountable.

I know from my encounters that many teens deeply love the Lord and have a strong desire to grow closer to Him. It’s our job to disciple these young hearts by keeping them accountable.

Ask the teens and young adults in your life to affirm their priorities. How much of their time and energy is given to those pursuits, be it prayer, school, time with family, sports, etc.?

Challenge them to go to the settings on their phone and pull up their screen usage data. How much time was spent each day, week, or month using various phone apps or programs? Does that time align with their priorities or support their goals?

Every minute spent on one’s phone can be time taken away from other opportunities. Are teens satisfied with how their time is being spent?

Sometimes all it takes is an affirmation of priorities and a realization of where time is actually going to spark change.

As leaders, we can provide resources for how teens can properly set boundaries and appropriately manage their time. These are practical and spiritual skills that go far beyond phone usage. Small habits become life disciplines. Why not start with screen time management?

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5. Don’t assume a teen on a phone doesn’t want to talk.

5. Don’t assume a teen on a phone doesn’t want to talk.

Think of how much social awkwardness a teen has to face daily. Looking down at their phones can partially insulate them from the uncomfortable tension of actually having to engage with the people around them, especially when they don’t know what to say.

Many teens are terrified of social rejection and would rather stay hidden than be exposed to that type of pain. People are used to seeing someone on their phone as a sign that they don’t want to be bothered.

Our challenge, however, as leaders, is to not be fooled by the mask. Don’t assume that a kid on his phone doesn’t want to talk. It may just mean that he’s nervous or doesn’t know what to say or how to initiate conversation.

The connections provided from our phones should never be a substitute for authentic face-to-face relationships. As adults, we must foster relationship and promote fellowship and community above digital networks and social “likes.”

Don’t wait for a teen to talk to you. Go to them. You can text someone and let them know you’re praying for them, or you can do it in person.

Remember that the members of the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). How many of those priorities were achieved outside of community and meaningful relationship?

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6. Lead by example.

6. Lead by example.

This last challenge I have is ultimately for adults, who I always encourage to lead the way on screen addiction by practicing what they preach. If you are challenging your teens to limit their phone usage, lead by example.

When we talk about screen addiction, we are not just talking about a teen phenomenon. Everyone can think of adults who are just as obsessed with their phones as teens are. Maybe everything I’ve described applies to you. Don’t be discouraged. God has provided a path to freedom through His Son (Galatians 5:1).

There is more to life than what’s on the screen.

Through prayer and small, intentional steps, our teens (and adults) can discover life benefits that will always outweigh the cost of addiction and the disconnect that comes from being enslaved to our smart phones.

Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s and young adult author who teaches writing at Life Pacific University. As a former youth pastor, he has a heart for young adults and is passionate about engaging youth through film, literature, and theater. His blog, Perspectives Off the Page, discusses the spiritual and creative life through the lens of storytelling.

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