I once saw a commercial for a cellular service, and that commercial still haunts me to this day. One scene consisted of a father with his sons on a camping trip as they sat around the campfire. The father was apparently telling a scary story in the stereotypical modern doofus-dad style. The two sons looked at each other, rolled their eyes, and plunged head down back into their cell phones. That was only one scene, and I found the tale to be frightening. That commercial was enough to convince me that I should definitely not buy a smartphone for my children. The family is the fundamental building block of society, and the basic message of the ad was that you should buy this service so that you can tune out your silly parents and get on with the important work of social media and entertainment.

I see something similar in my students. I am a high school physics teacher, and the general trend of the school day is that students do what they have to do (or, in some cases, don’t do what they have to do), so that they can disengage with their physical surroundings and get back to the movies they are watching or the games they are playing. Every now and then, a student comes into school having forgotten his cellphone, and the wide-eyed shakes are enough to indicate that he is suffering from withdrawal. Most of them are literally addicted. I am glad to say that this is not the case for all of my students, and there are still many positive face-to-face interactions throughout the day, but the screen obsession is certainly a general trend. Everything I write here applies not only to smartphones but also to laptops, tablets and other devices.

But we were not made for screens. We were made for encounter with the other; we were made for the ultimate Encounter with the Eternal Thou. “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 24), and we cannot sincerely give ourselves except through personal encounter.

The world of technology and social media is mostly one of appearance, propaganda and entertainment. It tends to foster a short attention span and a consumer mindset if not carefully held in check. Instant gratification is becoming more and more the norm, and virtue, by consequence, less and less common. As comfort, pleasure and entertainment become more easily available through our technology, very little is required of us. But the meaning of life is not comfort or pleasure or entertainment. Pursuing those ends creates inwardly focused consumers, not courageous and noble individuals who are capable of self-gift and true love.

I am not saying that technology and smartphones are inherently bad. No piece of technology is bad in itself — only in how it is used. But a device with access to practically everything should not be handed freely to children. Cellphones can be a very useful means of communication among family members and friends, but a loaded smartphone is more dangerous than a loaded gun. A gun can only wound or kill physically; an unrestricted smartphone has the potential to enslave the heart, mind and soul in so many different ways.

All of reality cries out with the goodness of God. All things witness to his power and love. But virtual reality, distanced significantly from nature, lacks the abundance of encounter we desire.

If we want our children to be brave, strong, self-controlled and wise, we should expose them to the beauty of creation, not the dangers that lurk on the internet. Let them become more fully themselves, more fully human, and then they will be able to make better choices for themselves.

In part 2 of this blog, I would like to respond to some of the common reasons I hear in defense of giving children their own smartphones, tablets and laptops.