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

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November 9-11 • The Heights School, Potomac, MD

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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

Alvaro de Vicente

About the guest:

Alvaro de Vicente


Alvaro de Vicente has served as Headmaster of The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland since July 2002. Originally from Santander, Spain, Alvaro received some of his secondary education at The Heights and graduated from there in 1983. In 1987 he graduated cum laude from Georgetown University with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Philosophy and received his J.D. from Georgetown University School of Law in 1991. As Executive Director of the Tenley Study Center from 1989 to 2002, he organized and managed supplemental development programs to several hundred students and professionals per year. Several of the Center’s programs were replicated and became standard programs for other supplemental education centers in the United States and abroad. While employed full-time by the Tenley Study Center, Mr. de Vicente offered his services on a part-time basis to The Heights School. Between 1992 and 2002, Mr. de Vicente assisted the School in various positions; coaching, establishing and running its college counseling office, school administrator overseeing contracts with vendors, and student advisor. From 1995 to 2001, Mr. de Vicente served on The Heights School’s Board of Directors, the last four years as its vice-president. In addition, Mr. de Vicente also serves on the Board of Trustees of two other educational groups; the Youth Leadership Foundation and the Texas Education Works. In his capacity as Headmaster of The Heights School he spearheaded and supervised the construction of the School’s signature building. But Mr. de Vicente’s most important work is in the classroom where he teaches Catholic Apologetics and in mentoring students daily.