Cell phones at youth group

youth group as cell phone free zone

Smart phones have enhanced my life and ministry in many ways. It is so easy to text or IM youth to remind them about tonight’s meeting, or to invite them for an ice cream. (Note that I also let the families know that I have contacted their youth.) However, I have become what is now called an iPhone potato. Like a couch potato but I don’t need a couch! 

Youth are iPhone potatoes too. They (the iPhones, not the youth) have their practical purposes, but many times phones are used to look busy, pretending to do homework, or to check out from a busy or hard day.  

Here’s the question: do they need to use their phones in youth group? Not in my group.

Now, our church, St. John's, is in a strange valley that gets bad cell phone reception. But that did not stop the kids from trying. They often had their phones hiding in their laps, texting away even though they told me their phones are off. 

I now have a basket for them to put their phones in when they enter the room. I ask them to turn them off too. We do not light the candles and do our opening prayer until the phones are in the basket, which helps the kids and the leaders define the sacredness of the room and our time together. 

Oh, they were mad at first and lied to me about, "I don’t have my phone with me." Or they came up with reasons like, “I might want to take a photo,” or “My mom needs to reach me.” Then they played along. Then they owned it. 

The parents were mad at first too, saying, “I need to be in touch in case I will be late.” Or “I need to ask them if they finished their homework.” Or (my favorite) “I need to ask him if he is having fun.” When I said, “Well, can’t you ask that in the car on the way home?” the parent said “Well, he won’t talk to me, but he will text me.” 

Sunday Sacred Time is important. Making it sacred means taking a break from other things – including parents.  

I used to enforce the no cell phone rule only on retreats so they could be in the moment. But I realized that it was not enough. I found that our kids (and me) need a technology break on a Sunday night. Getting away from the screens helps keep the youth focused on the topic and the fun of the meeting. They get more involved and engaged with each other. We can let go of the stress of the outside world through games, traditions, discussions, and food. It gives them time to be a kid again. 

The kids need to look each other in the eye when communicating and having fun. Their brains and bodies need to breathe and pray. They need time to listen. 

They need to begin to discover the value of a sacred place and a group of people where they can be themselves without having to hide behind a phone.    

That means I can focus on recharging their personal batteries not their phone batteries. (Many kids want to plug their phones in during the meeting.  I say – No.)  

Now I have their attention! Well, some of it anyway! 

A few weeks in and most of my kids walk through the door and toss their phones in the basket. A few have to be reminded, but it’s done by the other kids, not the leaders. The kids remind the leaders too! The basket is now moved to the room next door at their suggestion to make the time really phone-free. 

I suggest that during Advent you try this with your youth group. Have the kids create their meeting and room into a sacred space for them, starting with no phones. Maybe have a meeting where the topic is talking about technology, good and bad. Make a phone-free youth group a spiritual discipline for Advent and Lent, if not all year long.