Phones Give Youth Agency

I banned cell phones from church youth trips. Then I allowed them. Then I banned them again. And again.

Now I think it’s time to lift the ban again and allow phones on trips. There is a lot of work to do to ensure phones are used constructively and in limited, consistent increments during trips, and the conversation about gossip most certainly needs to be had with a group prior to the trip. We can talk about those things later.

I have long recognized that parents, as much as students, have a very difficult time leaving kids’ phones at home for a week-long mission trip or even a weekend retreat. Honestly, I have perceived this as a kind of helicopter parenting that is overly dependent on constant contact with one’s teenager. That may be the case for some parents, but there is something else phones give to teenagers that parents rightly want them to have: agency.

Mobile phones give youth agency. They can reach a trusted adult in a crisis. That is how parents justify giving their kids phones.

Requiring phones be left at home strips students of this important agency in a meaningful way that is not remedied by constant text updates from trip leaders to parents or posts to a shared blog or Facebook page. If a student, particularly a young student, particularly a young female student, feels threatened or unsafe on a church trip in a way she can’t share with a leader, even restricted access to her phone grants her agency to help herself.

I don’t like to think that any student or any parent would feel threatened by me on a trip. Nor do I like to think that their interactions with any of the trip leaders, women and men whom we have submitted to criminal background checks, would cause concern. But I can’t fault the parent of a 6th grader, who just met me, from having that thought. I am an institutional authority figure in an age when stories of such figures’ abuse of their positions have proliferated. I sympathize with the thought.

Maybe meeting that thought by demanding phones be left at home is worse than meeting it by allowing them.