FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Connection With Kids About Their Phones

with Jonathan McKee | January 24, 2022
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Kids with phones are a big deal! On FamilyLife Today, Jonathan McKee, author of over 25 books, helps parents understand the value of connection with their kids, concerns about their phones and some tips on how to talk about it all.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Kids with phones are a big deal! On FamilyLife Today, Jonathan McKee, author of over 25 books, helps parents understand the value of connection with their kids, concerns about their phones and some tips on how to talk about it all.

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Connection With Kids About Their Phones

With Jonathan McKee
January 24, 2022
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Dave: So we raised three boys in a digital world. Talk about that time, when you’re standing there, trying to get them off the couch.

Ann: They’d been playing video games all day; it felt like to me. As a mom, I’m thinking, “What a waste of time!” I come in the room; and I’m like, “Hey guys, it’s time to shut down the gaming.”

Dave: No; it wasn’t “Hey guys.” It was like—

Ann: No; it started like that.

Dave: —“Let me tell you something!”

Ann: No, no. [Laughter]

Dave: That’s what I remember; I could hear it from the basement.

Ann: It was probably more like, “What a waste of time!” That’s probably what it was, and I had some things I wanted them to do.

As I’m going off on them, I notice that they all have their phones out. They’re all looking at them, and they’re not looking at me at all. I’m like, “Hey, are you guys listening to me?” Then they all start to laugh. I’m like, “What is so funny?” One of them says, “Oh, Mom, we’re just texting back and forth of how crazy you are.”


Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.

Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at or on our FamilyLife® app.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!

There was a time when we had a college student come home, and then two boys were in high school. One of them says “Oh, Mom, we’re just texting back and forth of how crazy you are.” [Laughter] But that is what a lot of parents are facing.

Dave: I mean, that’s the world we live in.

Ann: Yes!

Dave: We’ve been living in it for quite a while. I mean, for parents, we need to understand: “How do we parent a generation that literally lives with their screens right in front of them?”

Ann: I like that you [Jonathan] said, “How do we tame the beast?” [Laughter]

Dave: Well it’s almost like the phone or the screens, in some ways, can become this beast that we need to understand, as parents, “How do we help navigate this world?”

We’ve got in the studio, in Orlando, Jonathan McKee, who spent your life devoted, really, to helping parents and kids understand how to navigate the screen/the beast; right? Many of you know Jonathan McKee’s written over 25 books.

Jonathan: There we go.

Dave: I heard 28 books—

Jonathan: Something like that.

Dave: —and counting.

Jonathan: Amazon’s got 28 of them; let’s put it that way.

Ann: Wow! That’s impressive.

Dave: And we’ve got a couple of them with us today. We’re going to talk about Parenting Generation Screen, which is a book really that you’ve written for parents—right?—to understand how to navigate this. And then just last year you wrote The Teen’s Guide to Face-to-Face Connections in a Screen-to-Screen World. This one’s written more to the children; right?—teenagers.

Jonathan: —more to the young person, yes.

Ann: The Face-to-Face Connections book was actually written by you with your daughter, which is pretty unique.

Jonathan: Yes; fun project with Alyssa and I. She was right in the middle of that world, so we tackled that one together. It was fun. It’s the first book—might even be the last—[Laughter]—I ever wrote with one of my kids. It was a great experience.

Dave: Well, you’ve got three kids; so you know exactly what we’re talking about when we opened this thing.

Jonathan: Yes.

Dave: I’d never heard the term “Generation Screen.” I’ve heard Generation “X” and “Z”; what’s Generation Screen?

Jonathan: Well, it’s a good summary because—really, when you look at the lines now—you know, people will talk about Millennials and this and that; but you’ve got

Gen “Y”; you’ve got Gen “Z”. It’s interesting—this is one of the fun things about bringing my daughter, Alyssa, into this project with me—is she was born in 1995; now, it doesn’t sound very unique.

But anybody, who had a kid born around that time, what they do realize is that put her in high school smack dab in the middle of when everything changed. Because 2012 was right in the middle of her high school experience—2012 is a very unique year in technology/a very important year; because 2012 is, not only the year that Snapchat® came out; it’s not only the year that Instagram® became a thing—it was the year that America crossed the 50 percent mark for smartphone ownership.

What she noticed was, for her junior year, she said there was kind of this shift, where: “Sure, we texted; but also now, social media, which used to be this thing that was at home plugged into the wall, was now in our pockets. All of a sudden, now, people are snapping everything; they’re checking DMs [direct messages] instead of texts and everything. Screen time started to bump a little bit; people became a little more absorbed.” She says conversation, as she knew it, changed; so fascinating for her to see that.

It’s funny because I have another daughter, two years younger than her; and for her, her whole high school experience was social media. For my son, who is older than Alyssa, it was all texting; but Alyssa, right in the middle, and she saw the switch happen. So fascinating to see, as social media got into our back pocket, how that kind of changed communication as we know it.

Ann: Let me ask you: “Why did she decide? Did you ask her to write this, or did she have an experience with this that she thought, ‘This is important; I want to have a voice in the world’?”

Jonathan: Actually, the 23 other people I asked to write it couldn’t; and so I was like “Alyssa, can you help me?” “Fine.” [Laughter]

No, no, no. I was so excited because she’s always been very conscious of face time versus screen time; she knows the difference. We definitely had some fun experiences—I’m just going to call them “fun”; that’s a good label for it right now—[Laughter]—over the years, where maybe, we as family members were too absorbed. I’m going to say “we”—because me being too absorbed from the screen; she being too absorbed from the screen—and so we thought, “This will be really fun to dialogue”; because we both kind of had the same opinion that screens aren’t bad/they’re not evil; but sometimes, screens just start to interfere with connection: “Here’s this invention: it’s supposed to help us connect better and, instead, it’s interfering with connection.”

So we thought: “Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about the importance of these face-to-face connections; and this thing, where it’s okay to be looking at your screen, but when somebody else comes in the room, wouldn’t it be cool if we maybe just put that thing in our pocket?” We both felt that way, and we had something to say about it; so this is the book, where we said it together.

Dave: It’s interesting; Ann showed me last week a little cartoon of a guy who dies and goes to heaven. There’s an angel there meeting him. The angel says, “Man, you had an amazing life; but you missed it, because you were always looking at your phone.” [Laughter]

Jonathan: There it is.

Dave: But I mean, it is just what you’re saying. I’ve been there; I have missed things right in front of me in my family room, or in a meeting; you name it, where I am—I don’t want to say, “addicted”—but I’m like I’m checking my phone; I’m responding to a text; I’m looking at a YouTube video—and life and people are right there in front of me.

We’re old enough to know life before that, and life with that; and our kids/they’ve never known anything different. So talk about this: “How many kids really do have a phone or a screen in their hand? If this is Generation Screen, it seems like everybody; but what is it?”

Jonathan: Yes; when it gets to teenagers, the last numbers were actually over a year-old right now. I mean, through COVID, it’s funny how things have changed; so it’s going to be interesting to see how these numbers switch. But as of just pre-COVID, it was

89 percent of teenagers had a smartphone in their pocket; 97 percent of them were on social media in one way or another.

Of course, screen time went up during COVID; so I mean, screen time? Man, you start looking at the numbers of entertainment media time young people are soaking in; the average is almost ten hours a day of entertainment media that young people soak in per day. That’s a lot of time to be just listening to music, watching funny videos on YouTube, scrolling through social media to see how you measure up with everybody else. I mean there’s a lot of this going on.

Ann: This stirs me up now; I get like heated about this, because what I think—and I know there’s some great things about social media; we can use it for good things—but there’s a part of me that thinks we’re giving our kids ten hours a day, where they’re being discipled by the culture. That’s how I could look at it.

I love that you’re here, Jonathan; because you can help us, as parents, not to freak out. I like what you talk about: you talk about this in comparison to you don’t just give your kids a cell phone; you talk about that in comparison to like you just wouldn’t hand your teenager the car keys.

Jonathan: And that’s exactly how I start the book, Parenting Generation Screen. I give that analogy of: “If your ten-year-old came up to you and said, ‘Hey, Dad, I’m going to go take the SUV. I’m going to go ride around town. I’m going to meet some people I’ve never met before, let them in the car with me, and go around; can I have the keys?’ Well, of course, you’d be like, ‘No way!’”

Ann: “Are you insane?”

Jonathan: “What? Are you crazy?”

I say, “Well that’s exactly what we do with the phone; we hand them this device/this very powerful device with no training for this at all. We just say, ‘Here you go; so you can go out and you could play whatever you want; you can talk with whoever you want; you can be whoever you want.’”

It’s just one of those things where, when it comes to training our kids to operate a vehicle, we sit with them, in a seat next to them, by law. I know, in California, I had to sit next to my kids for 50 hours. [Laughter] I had to sign a piece of paper that I sat. We’d be like, “Okay, we’re going to school today”; we started to clock those hours. We’re like: “Okay, be careful as you merge,” “Okay, watch out for that lady. This is California; she has a gun.” [Laughter] We’re using: “Here’s how to ride on the freeway.” There’s so much coaching going on.

With the phone, we’re just like, “Here you go; don’t break it. Don’t be stupid.”

Ann: And even, “Why do we give it to them?” I’ve heard so many parents say, “I couldn’t take the pressure any more. They are badgering me night and day, and I finally gave in.”

Jonathan: Yes; parents constantly will hear—they can relate—they hear, “All my friends have a phone.” Now the thing that’s crazy is we need to be compassionate to this. I was on a middle school campus just before COVID. I was hanging out with these 11- through 14-year-olds—this is sixth through eighth graders—I was in this classroom. There was only like—oh, maybe 13 or 14 of them—and I thought, “I’m going to try something.” I went up, and I wrote my phone number up on a whiteboard. I said, “Okay, everybody whip out your phones.” Immediately—if there was 14 kids in the room—14 kids whipped out a smartphone—14.

Now, statistically, for that age, it’s about like 60/high 60s, almost 70 percent that should own phones. The average age that someone gets a smartphone in America right now is about 10 years old. By the time they get to high school, you’re looking towards

90 percent; but middle school, 60 to 70 percent have smartphones. I don’t care what the numbers say; 100 percent of these kids whipped out a phone.

I started using the phone to get to know these kids. I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to play a game called speed text. Here we go. My number is on the board; get it in your phone.” They’re like, “Done; we already have it.” I mean, they had it by the time I wrote the last number; it was done.

I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to name something; and I want you to send it to me. First one to send it to me gets a point. The first one to ten points gets this Starbucks card.” Boom! Immediately, I’m like, “A selfie and your first and last name”; and immediately, kids are holding up their phones, like, [Sound effect]  “Boom!” My phone’s blowing up with pictures of kids, who just took these selfies, and their first and last name.

By the way, anybody that works with young people is going, “Jonathan, this is great. You’re getting information on these kids.” So I started thinking, “Okay, what can I learn?” I’m like, “What’s your favorite fast food?”—boom!—immediately. I go, “Take a screen shot of the most recent song you played,”—boom!—they’re sending it to me. “Take a screen shot of the most recent app you’ve been on,”—boom!—I’m getting, you know, name it: Fortnite®, Instagram, TikTok®.

So when it was done, here’s these kids I was going to be hanging out with for the year. All of a sudden, I now have these texts of these kids. I’ve got their first and last name, face; and I’m looking at:

  • “Oh, they were on TikTok, and they’re 11 years old; that means they lied about their age just to get on TikTok, because you have to be 13 to be on TikTok.”
  • “Oh, and look, their song they were listening to was this song by Post Malone.”

I’m learning all this stuff about—it’s funny; in the youth ministry world, we used to say, “If you want to get to know a kid, go into their room,” —now, if you want to get to know a kid, just look in their phone; because that is their world.

Dave: Talk about this: if it’s going to be 50 hours of drivers ed: classes, training, and 50 hours with your parents before you can get a license, what should parents do before giving their kids a cell phone?

Jonathan: Well, it’s funny; that’s why I’ve written so many of these teens’ guide books and guys’ guide books. I wanted to give parents a tool they could use. This book that my daughter and I wrote, The Teen’s Guide to Face-to-Face Connections in a Screen-to-Screen World, this is just an example. This is a book that talks about the amount of time you spend on your phone; and some of the important things like:

  • “Hey, this is a great device to connect with people outside of the room when it doesn’t interfere with our relationships with the people inside the room.”
  • It talks about predators.
  • It talks about screen time.
  • It talks about social media time.

How good for us, just as parents, to engage our kids in conversations about this stuff and get them to start thinking about some of this stuff before they start navigating that world. We need to start having conversations with our kids about this.

Ann: Walk us through: “How old should our kids be before we give in to the cell phone?” Or maybe what you said, Dave, is: “What are the steps that we should have already taken before they’re mature enough and we’ve equipped them enough to know how to handle a cell phone?”

Jonathan: Well it’s interesting; because in my Parenting Generation Screen book, I’d say the question I’m asked more than anything else is: “What age?” I thought “Okay, I’ve got to devote a chapter to this; because that is constantly—they’ll say, ‘Okay, my 12-year-old, every day, she comes home and says, “All


Jonathan: —"my friends have smartphones.” It doesn’t work when you go, ‘Well, actually, only 72 percent of 12-year-olds…’”—[Laughter]—it doesn’t work; it doesn’t work.

Dave: It doesn’t work.

Jonathan: So you’ve got to kind of sit there and just, “Oh, really?” I talk to them about listening to that and being able to dialogue, but it’s interesting when you start to see what the experts are saying; for example, I mean, like Jim Steyer, who’s the CEO of Common Sense Media. This is a guy who his whole world is studying the amount of time that young people spend on screens. He’s asked all the time: “What age?” It is the question: “What age should I get my kids a smartphone?” He always says his answer like, “Well, it depends on the kid and how responsible they are,” and all this different stuff. They’re kind of like: “Okay, Jim,” “Jim,” “Jim,” “Jim—

Ann: “What age?”

Jonathan: “Jim,” “Jim,”—they’re lighting torches—[menacingly] "What age? We need to know. My kid is killing me here.”

Finally, they’re like, “Jim, when did you let your kids?” Because he was a parent of teenagers; and he’s like, “Fourteen when they were in high school.” He waited until they were 14.

It’s funny; Bill Gates—same question; guy who knows tech—

Ann: —a little bit.

Jonathan: —just a little bit—knows tech, likes tech; thinks it’s a good thing—14 when his kids were in high school.

If people ask me—I’m a guy who studies this, writes about this all the time—I always say the summer before their freshman year of high school. And if they’re ready, and if they’re showing responsibility, then that should be a summer just bathed in conversation. That should be the summer that you’re taking your kid out to breakfast every—name it—Tuesday morning, whatever; and going through The Teen’s Guide to Social Media or whatever; and taking them through, and talking about this stuff/sitting in the passenger’s seat next to them and saying, “Hey, let’s prepare for these decisions you’re going to make about screen time; and some of the big questions: ‘Are you going to have it in your bedroom at night?’ ‘How much time are you going to spend on social media?’ ‘This whole influencer thing if you want to be an influencer,”—all these things.

Ann: Some people just heard that and are like, “Wait; you’re going to ask them if they can have the phone?” What are those conversations? Because I like that you talk about that; because you might already know the answer of: “You will not have your phone in your bedroom”; but you still dialogued about it.

Jonathan: Well, and that’s funny; because I’ll give you a kind of behind-the-scenes peek here. In my Parenting Generation Screen, whenever I write a book now, one of the things I do is I make a practice to get it out to as many of my readers before it’s published. I say, “Mark it up; feedback; I want to hear it.”

So about 70 people got the book before it was printed. I said, “Feedback: I want to hear it.” The one thing that they kept saying is: “Okay, you were sneaky here, because here’s a book that we’re obviously picking up/that most parents are picking up to say, ‘Okay, what rules should I have for my kids?’ ‘What blocks can I put on this device?’”

I definitely go into: “Hey, should or should not your kid have the phone in the bedroom?” “How much time is too much time?” “Is social media harmful for my kids? Should I allow it? If so, when?—what age?” All those questions: they’re answered in the book, and I’m not going to tell you any of them; no, I’m just kidding. [Laughter]

But the thing they said was so surprising is: “Jonathan, you don’t just say, ‘Here’s how to set the phone.’ The theme of this book was so overwhelmingly: ‘Here’s how to engage your kids in conversations about this.’” The reason why is simply this: our kids are going to turn 18 some day, and they’re going to be in a college dorm; they’re going to be in army barracks; they’re going to be somewhere away from the house. They’re not going to call you up and be like, “Dad, can I download the new HBO show?” No, they’re not going to ask you that question; they’re going to make that decision for themselves. The only question we should ask ourselves is: “Did we equip them for that day/for that moment, making that decision?”

That’s usually not through a rule; it’s usually through the conversations we’ve had. That’s why the relationship is so important. If we have rules without a relationship, that’s a guaranteed lead to rebellion.

Dave: So when you talk, you talk about in your book: “Connection before correction.” How does a parent do that? Can I communicate with my son through texting? [Laughter]

Jonathan: No; see I am not a phone hater. Remember; I actually like my phone: my phone got me to this studio today. It told me which direction to turn and all that. This nice female voice said, “Turn left; turn right.” Most of us men are used to a female voice telling us where to turn, [Laughter] so it was a good thing!

The whole point of the “Connection before correction,” is our tendency, when it comes to a subject like this, is when our kids are all on the couch, texting each other, we want to show up in the room—[Laughter]—just random example here—

Ann: Yes; just random.

Jonathan: —and we want to start barking like, “This is ridiculous! What are you thinking?!” [Laughter] That’s what we want to do. I’ve done that so many times, where I’ve just/I kind of overreact, and I correct it there in a moment.

The whole principle of “Connection before correction,” is saying: “This is one of these important subjects we need to talk about.” So what I did was—early in that book, Parenting Generation Screen—I talked about this principle of “Connection before correction.” And then in every single one of the points throughout the book—whether we’re talking about: “Should I have my phone in the bedroom?” “What age should I get my kid a phone?” “Should they be on social media; and if so, how long per day?”—every one of those issues I talked about: “How do we connect with our kids on this? How do we talk with them about it? How do we listen to their opinion on it and hear their point of view?”

And then “How do we, most importantly, delay our response?”—not make a decision right there—but hit that pause button and go, “Hmm, let’s pray about this. Let’s think about this, and then let’s go back; and we’ll make a decision about what rule we’re going to have.” We’re not going to just immediately go: “Here’s the rules! Sign here.” But we’re going to talk about it, listen to them; and that’s that principle. I wish I’d done that more with my own kids.

Ann: Yes; that’s really good; me too. I’m thinking of Deuteronomy 6:6-7: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” That’s exactly what you’re talking about; it’s an ongoing conversation with our kids.

Jonathan: And isn’t it funny that that passage doesn’t talk about simply: “Here’s the rules that your supposed to leave with your kids,” and “Those rules will raise your kids.” No, they really paint this picture of this getting up in the morning, walking along the road, going to bed at night—these ongoing conversations—this is discipleship. It’s this talking through; that’s what we need to do.

Again, I’m not anti-rule. We live in a world right now where 79 percent of young people bring their phone in their bedroom at night. This is a pet peeve of mine. The American Academy of Pediatrics has been, for literally decades, been saying: “No screens in the bedroom,” for decades. Now that phones are in kid’s pockets, there’s no exception; they’re saying “Hey, no smartphones in our kids’ back pockets.”

But the thing that we have to consider here is that eight out of ten parents aren’t monitoring that. There’s not parents outside kids’ doors with a bucket, saying, “Please deposit the phone in a bucket.” This is not happening, so kids are bringing these devices in their bedroom.

I’ll tell you something. So many of my back table discussions with parents, after a parent workshop, come up to me; and they’re asking me questions. It’s: “Okay, so here’s what my kid was doing all night on social media…” “Here’s what my kid was doing all night—gaming.” “Here’s what my kid was doing all night…” That word, “all night” is always coming out.

It’s like: “You know what? Here’s one of those simple rules/those simple guidelines that would help so much; and instead of just throwing this on your kid—“No phone in the bedroom because I said so,”—it’s connecting with them and getting to the “Why?” Because, you know, the first thing they’re going to do is: “Why?!”; right? Get to the why/get to that conversation; talk to them about it. We need to have that “Connection before the correction.”

Bob: I think there are maybe two extremes that we can run to, as parents, as we face something like the digital revolution and how we parent our kids in the midst of this. One extreme is to say, “Well, my kids aren’t going to have a device until they’re 35 years old”; and that doesn’t work. The other extreme is to say, “Well, I guess there’s nothing I can do, so here you go”; and then just pray—that doesn’t work either.

What Jonathan McKee has been sharing with us is a practical way for us to maintain engagement and involvement around a real-life tool that can be a great asset to our children but can, also, be a portal for evil. Jonathan’s written about this in a book about this called Parenting Generation Screen: Guiding Your Kids to be Wise in a Digital World. It’s a book we’re recommending to you.

In fact, we want to make this book available to any of you who would like a copy. If you can help with a donation for the ministry of FamilyLife Today, we’re happy to send you the book as our way of saying, “Thank you for your support of our mission.” Our goal here, at FamilyLife, is to effectively develop godly marriages and families to deal with these kinds of real-life practical issues that all of us are facing and say: “What does the Bible have to say about this?” “How would God want us to function as parents in this area?”

You help make this mission possible every time you donate. In fact, you help us reach more people, more often, with your donations; and we are grateful for your partnership with us. So when you make a donation today, online at—or when you call to donate: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number; 1-800-358-6329—ask for your copy of Jonathan McKee’s book, Parenting Generation Screen. Again, we’re happy to send it to you as a way of saying, “Thank you for your partnership with us here in the ministry of FamilyLife Today.”

Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to talk more with Jonathan McKee about some of the very real dangers that exist in the online world. What is it that your kids are being exposed to that could be actually harmful, not just emotionally harmful or spiritually harmful, but physically harmful? We’ll hear more about that tomorrow. I hope you can join us.

On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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