Kids & Technology, Part 3: What are digital technologies doing to our kids?

Nick Weyrens

May 09, 2024

Time Is Not Money, Time is Formation

You have undoubtedly heard it said that “Time is money.” And it is true for tech companies, for social media juggernauts, for content producers, and influencers. In the attention economy of today—in a world where Google’s ad revenue for 2022 (one year) was $224 billion—time is money. The more time you spend on gazing upon whatever glowing product they allure you to, the more money they make.

But I think the much more important idea for the topic at hand—how do we, as Christian parents, shepherd our kids towards healthy technology use—is understanding that time is formation.

A Lot of Littles Makes a Lot

Let’s play with time a little bit here to help us grasp why this assertion might be true.

A while ago, I had the realization that if I spent 30 minutes per day doing something, I’d spend one week of that year doing it. Thirty minutes of prayer per day means I’d spend one week per year praying. Thirty minutes of reading per day, same thing. Or, as was the case at this time, playing 30 minutes of video games per day meant I’d spend an entire week of that year playing video games.

But let’s size it up a little it to see how what seem like small chunks of time in daily increments can add up to having a large influence on our lives when carried out over a longer time horizon.

If you spend one hour per day doing anything you’ll spend 15 days per year doing that thing; if you spend two hours per day doing something, you’ll spend 30 days (or another way to say this is one whole month) doing that thing.

Now, let’s give this some claws: the average millennial spends five hours per day on their phone. That means the average millennial spends 76 days per year on their phone. Two full months per year—not waking hours only, but full 24-hour chunks of time—two full months of these days per year, a millennial somewhere stares at their phone.

I read recently that over 50% of US teens spend over five hours per day on social media. Again, that’s two full months per year. That means if you have two teenagers in a room, every five years one of them will spend one entire year of those five years on social media.

I don’t share this to get you to feel guilty about how you use your time, or to argue that you should not squander it away because God wants you to “redeem the time,” as the Apostle Paul says. The much bigger point is that because we—we and our kids—are spending so much time on our screens, we are being formed (or probably it’s more helpful to say deformed) by our digital devices in astronomical ways.

How Are Smartphones and Social Media Forming Our Kids?

Beginning in 2015, there were two voices—Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt—who began voicing concerns about smartphone and social media use in teenagers. Their hypothesis is simple: smart phones and social media use are the primary cause of the teenage mental health crisis.

Twenge and Haidt—both of whom teach at universities—began to notice that something was changing in their students starting around 2012, specifically that mental healths seemed to be declining in their students.

Here’s a little bit of a picture of what they started to see in the research.


What happened in 2012, and why is that the mile-marker for them?

Very simply: 2012 is the year that smartphone use toppled over to a majority of people owning one. As the ubiquity of smartphones rose and rose, the age at which kids got their own smartphone crept earlier and earlier.

These early voices have frankly been fighting a wall of critics, many who have tried to poke holes in their theory. But Twenge and Haidt, through their careful and thorough research, have continued to hold firm in the face of other arguments and alternative theories. Twenge helpfully summarized all of these rebuttals recently in her curtly titled article “Yes, It’s the Phones (And Social Media)”. And I’m sure to the aplomb of these two forerunners, more voices are emerging.

A recent study by Sapien Labs shows a seemingly direct correlation between age of first smartphone ownership and mental well-being.

Why is this so? Why are smartphones deforming our kids at such an alarming rate?

In his book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinke summarizes the effects that he sees smartphones having on all of us. He writes…

  • Our phones amplify our addiction to distractions and thereby splinter our perception of our place in time.
  • Our phones push us to evade the limits of embodiment and thereby cause us to treat one another harshly.
  • Our phones feed our craving for immediate approval and promise to hedge against our fear of missing out.
  • Our phones undermine key literary skills and, because of our lack of discipline, make it increasingly difficult for us to identify ultimate meaning.
  • Our phones offer us a buffet of produced media and tempt us to indulge in visual vices.
  • Our phones overtake and distort our identity and tempt us toward unhealthy isolation and loneliness.

Unfettered access to the internet via a device that never leaves your side (quite literally—a recent survey showed almost one-quarter of people sleep with their phone in their hands) opens you up to worlds that did not even exist 10 years ago.

One of these worlds, a world that is uniquely dangerous for undeveloped little plants, looking to grow deeper roots of identity into the soil is the world of social media. It’s a world of full of dopaminergic entertainment, social comparison, and more—but not a world of human flourishing.

Especially for young girls, social media is quite seriously soul-crushing.

In a study on UK adolescents, you can see that there is a direct correlation between time spent on social media and mental health for young girls. For boys, the negative effects begin at about two hours of use per weekday, which should not be taken to mean that if boys have less than two hours of social media, they’ll be fine. They will still assuredly be formed (or deformed) in some way by significant use of social media.


But still that leaves us asking why.

There’s a multiplicity of things at play here that are coming together to create a poisonous cocktail for the young soul.


Ironically, in the social media age kids (and adults) report greater feelings of loneliness than ever before. Many theorize that this is because of a concept called social snacking, in which the small, yet shallow bites of connection we get from social media apps tricks our brains into thinking that we have more and better relationships than we actually do. Much like ultra-processed foods, ultra-processed connections do not actually satiate the hunger we have for community any more, nor give us proper "relational nutrients.” Any parent who has made the mistake of letting their kids have unfettered access to a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos before dinner knows this trade-off all too well.


Today’s kids always have to be on. The home—once a place where somebody could let their hair down and not have to worry about what others thought about them—is now bombarded by notifications from friends to send Snaps, TikToks, and ‘Grams. The former boundaries have dissolved, and kids today are now required to be on at all times.

Amplification of Harmful & Extreme Content

Recent studies have shown that TikTok users may be delivered harmful content related to suicide or eating disorders within minutes of creating an account. This is not a bug, it’s a feature. All algorithmically-driven apps are designed to capture attention, and much like drugs, or gambling, or chocolate cakes, it always take a little bit more for us to be satisfied. For apps like TikTok, Reels, and Shorts, that more should be best understand as more extreme.

Sleep Interference

Kids need sleep. They need sleep for their bodies to grow. They need sleep to process memories. They need sleep to improve their mental health. Studies indicate that high use of screen media, specifically social media and internet use, trend towards impaired sleep.

Replacement of Character-Forming Activities

As time spent on smartphones and social media has increased, time spent doing activities that kids used to do—sports, reading, learning piano, free-playing outside with others—has decreased.

The conclusion of Twenge, Haidt, and others is still widely debated, but it does seem that the tides are shifting a bit. Just recently 33 states filed lawsuits against Meta (formerly Facebook) for creating addictive features targeting kids. In May, the US Surgeon General issued a warning against social media use for teenagers because of its effects on mental health and wellbeing.

Even with the voices decrying social media and smartphones for children, the cultural default seems to be that a kid will get a smartphone pretty much when they want, and that they’ll lie about their age to get on social media, and we’ll all be okay with it.

But as Christian parents desiring to cultivate little plants that flourish in Christ, we cannot accept the cultural default. We know that the values of our culture—and its tools—rarely ever (fully) align with God’s desire for His People.

Like any good gardener, as Christian parents, we must look at the garden plot where our little plants are beginning to grow and intentionally assess what is best for them.

To help our kids flourish in our technocratic age, we as parents must intentionally think about what tools our children use, and how they use them.

In our next post, we’ll talk about the vitality of intentionality, and how cultivating thoughtful engagement with technology in our households can help us use technology to our ends (a flourishing life in Christ) and not to be used by technology for its ends.

Nick Weyrens

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Sojourn Midtown is a part of the Sojourn family of churches. Our mission is to reach people with the gospel, build them up as the church, and send them into the world.

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