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When Is Your Son Ready for a Smart Phone? Mr. de Vicente on Self-Mastery, Technology, and Parental Discernment

In this week’s episode, headmaster Alvaro de Vicente helps us develop a philosophy of technology. Building off previous conversations on The Forum with Cal Newport, Mr. de Vicente takes a deep dive into the topic of smartphones. In particular, he helps us answer the following questions:

  1. How can parents discern if a smartphone would be beneficial for their son? 
  2. When is the right time to entrust him with this powerful tool? Under what circumstances? 
  3. Will waiting to give your son a smartphone render him ill-prepared for college and beyond?
  4. More provocatively, is it correct to assume that holding off on the smartphone is merely delaying the inevitable?

As Mr. de Vicente explains, parents’ discussions of these questions ought principally to consider their son’s level of self-mastery. Like any tool, if a smartphone is to be of help rather than harm, the user must be prepared to use it and not be used by it. 

On a practical level, the two basic questions to be asked are:

  1. What are my son’s current needs? 
  2. Can my son master this piece of technology? 

To answer the first question, Mr. de Vicente suggests that parents consider: 

  1. The purposes of technology: communication, information, organization, and entertainment.
  2. The possible (objective) needs of the boy: calling, texting, GPS. 
  3. What tool–whether a smartphone, flip-phone, or some other device–will satisfy the specific needs without being detrimental to the boy’s ultimate good.

In order to answer the third point, it is helpful to look at whether a boy has demonstrated self-mastery in the following areas: 

  1. Property: clothes, school materials, sports equipment.
  2. Spaces: room, bed, closet, desk. 
  3. Time: morning and evening routines, weekends and holidays.
  4. Urges: speaking, food, desire to have a phone.

While no-one is perfect, if a child has not displayed a certain level of self-mastery in these areas of his life, it will be hard for him to use a smartphone well. Indeed, it is far easier for a boy to put a shirt on a hanger or make use of a calendar than it is for him to resist the algorithms of technologies whose aim it is for him to be unable to. If he does not do the former, one ought not assume he will do the latter.

In the end, using smartphones well is not a matter of learning how to navigate technology per se, which is a skill that is not learned with much difficulty. It is, rather, a matter of developing self-mastery, which is a virtue that requires both time and perhaps more than little toil. 

Show Highlights

  • How to develop a personal philosophy of technology 
  • In general, what is a good approach to smartphones?
  • Questions parents should ask themselves when deciding whether their child needs (and is ready for) a smartphone
  • What are the purposes of a phone? 
  • Are all needs equal?
  • How do you know if your child is capable of mastering a smartphone? 
  • What parents can do to limit bad uses of technology 
  • Does a high schooler need a smartphone in order to be prepared for college? 
  • Is there a right age to give your child a smartphone?
  • Challenge the assumption that the smartphone is inevitable for everyone 
  • Some alternative phones to the traditional smartphone 
  • What to do if a parent has mistakenly given their child a smartphone

Also from The Forum

Digital Minimalism: Creating a Philosophy of Personal Technology Use

Digital Minimalism: Creating a Philosophy of Personal Technology Use, Part II

About the Guest

Alvaro de Vicente

Headmaster, The Heights School

In addition to his responsibilities as headmaster of The Heights, Alvaro acts as a mentor to high schoolers, and teachers senior Apologetics.

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