FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Social Media and Your Kids: Dr. Jeremiah Johnston

with Jeremiah Johnston | May 24, 2023
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Dr. Jeremiah Johnston reveals research on the devices and social media our kids live on. What do we need to know? How can we manage both in holy ways?

  • 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.

Dr. Jeremiah Johnston reveals research on the devices and social media our kids live on. What do we need to know? How can we manage both in holy ways?

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Social Media and Your Kids: Dr. Jeremiah Johnston

With Jeremiah Johnston
May 24, 2023
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Dave: Every parent, every Christian parent—

Ann: Wait! Don’t say anything yet. Let me take a selfie real quick. [Laughter]

Jeremiah: Yes.

Dave: I guess that’s where we’re starting today. I was going to say every Christian parent is hoping to raise their kids in the faith, and we are living in and day and age where what you just referenced “the selfie” the phone the digital world is controlling our kids.

Ann: It has changed everything. As parents, we’re lost. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know whether to be passive; we don’t know whether to be active. Are we good guys? Are we the bad guys?

I feel like parents are desperate.

Dave: I think a lot of parents are doing nothing.

Ann: Because they don’t know what to do.

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson.

You can find us at or on the FamilyLife® app.

This is FamilyLife Today!

Dave: We’ve got Jeremiah Johnston back in the studio. Welcome back, Jeremiah.

Jeremiah: Thank you, Dave and Ann. This is an important topic for me. I have five kids that are Generation Z.

If you have kids right now or grandkids who’ve been born since 1996—we’re talking about the largest generation ever—Gen Z—larger than Millennials—larger than any other generation before it—it really gets my attention, because I’m no expert but I’m working on it.

The biggest battles that we face in the Johnston home are battles over these nuclear devices that society has put in our hands called cell phones, smart phones.

Ann: They’re nuclear? I didn’t even know that.

Jeremiah: They’re nuclear devices; they will blow up everything, and we have to respond as parents, biblically. As Christian thinkers, we have to talk guard rails because these things are the silent killers of our kids right now. I think it’s so important that we discuss for parents the realities of it, and then hopefully we can get to some solutions.

Dave: Now you and Audrey have been married how many years?

Jeremiah: Eighteen years.

Dave: Eighteen. Your oldest is how old?

Jeremiah: Thirteen. She has a phone. Yes, worst decision I ever made as a dad was giving her a phone. [Laughter] I’m willing to confess that. Justin is 10. He’s in 4th grade. We have triplets, age six. Now I will tell you, even our boys have iPads.

Ann: You’re not against having devices.

Jeremiah: No, I’m not against it. We can’t boycott everything. We can’t leave our house. We have to know how to live in the world but not be of the world. I began to research this as a concerned dad. I am a professional researcher by trade. I wanted to study the effects of phone usage, because I’m seeing the influence of it on my own kids.

Dave: Right.

Jeremiah: There’s some stuff that I think we need to dialogue [about]. You hit the nail on the head. When Apple released the front-facing camera and we started having the selfie generation in 2012, the world literally changed.

There’s a great thinker by the name of Jonathan Haidt at NYU. I highly recommend any parent to look at his research about the damaging effects of social media on our young people because he tracks—2012, incidentally was also the year that Facebook bought Instagram. Mr. Haidt’s research confirms that depression rates started to rise “all of the sudden around 2013, especially for teen girls, but it’s only Gen Z and not the older generation.”

What was Gen Z starting to do? They became this generation of compare, performance, selfie highlight reels and despair. He is showing—again, don’t take my word for it—go look at his open research his open-source data. Another colleague of his, Scott Galloway, on a recent nationally televised news channel—you can Google this—said—he was asked “Scott, tell us what effects social media is having on families.”

He said, “Well, just to be really honest, I would rather my 14-year-old son have Jack Daniels and marijuana than have an Instagram or Snap account.

Ann: He’s saying this is how negative the effects are.

Jeremiah: Yes, and by the way, if anyone just caught us, we’re not endorsing marijuana or whiskey. He was drawing a comparison. Parents need to wake up to how dangerous Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok [are].

Do you know that Gen Z right now, they’re not even going to Google for their search. They’re going to TikTok for a search. Think about this for a moment. These truth curators—who don’t believe in absolute truth, by the way—they know Gen Z is actually going to TikTok more than even Google now to find truth.

Ann: I didn’t know that. Did you?

Dave: No, and I think we’re like most parents. We’re clueless.

Jonathan: Exactly

Dave: It’s “Oh, it’s not that harmful. It can’t be that big a deal.” Dig into what is so harmful.

Jeremiah: I’ve done a lot of research.

Dave: Obviously, if depression rates are rising, that’s an alarm.

Jeremiah: Yes, it’s fascinating. Ninety-five percent of age thirteen to seventeen use YouTube, TikTok, Instagram. The most popular app right now on the app store—and I dork out with my daughter—I do this just to get under her skin—I call it “Get Real” but the app is really called “BeReal.” It’s a vanishing app called BeReal, and these kids are on it all the time.

We have to put guard rails in place as parents.

Dave: A vanishing app [means] you take a picture or whatever and it’s gone.

Jeremiah: Take a picture; a few people can see it. It can have streaks like on Snapchat. You can imagine, if you’re a girl if you are my daughter’s age, and she’s not getting the streak that the friends are getting, this causes an emotional crisis a social crisis. It causes very skin-deep friendships or relationships.

Where we grew up with authentic friendships and we’d hash things out, these kids don’t have authentic friendships. I’m having to struggle with sharing “What is a real friend.”

I was speaking to a group of 1000s of kids recently. Then we did break out sessions. I’ll never forget this precious girl, she raised her hand—middle schooler—she said, “Dr. Johnston, what’s more important my real friends or my online friends?”

Ann: That’s a valid question today.

Jeremiah: Yes. There are some very important solutions though, I think. Those are some of the realities. As leaders, right now we’re defining reality. This is probably a challenge in your home. My son’s a gamer. We love gaming. But we don’t play it all night long, as he’s tried before. We put guard rails in place.

Ann: I love, Jeremiah, that you’re in a dad in this spot, because I’m saying, “Wait, so you’re talking to your daughter about this, but she does have some apps on her phone.”


Jeremiah: Yes, she does. She tries to get around some of the protections we put in place.

Right now, the internet age is 13. A lot of people don’t know this. This was approved in the 90’s. The internet age was approved in the 90’s. It probably needs to be updated.

In fact, there’s a thinker, a Jewish thinker, by the name of Yuval Levin. He said Instagram—this was a great op-ed in the New York Times—he said, “If Instagram and TikTok were brick and mortar spaces in your neighborhood, you probably would never let even your teenager go to them alone. Parents should have some say over their children’s presence in these virtual spaces.”

He's even recommending raising the internet age to 18, because here’s what our kids and grandkids do—this is real talk on FamilyLife—I love this—they get a phone, and then they lie about their age because there’s one little screen that says, “Are you over the age of 13?” What do all the kids, including mine, do? Lie. Then they get the app, and then they find ways to hide the apps.

There are some devastating stories. In fact, many parents have come together, and they’ve called social media today “The Silent Killer of Generation Z,” because of the higher suicidal ideation, the isolation it causes and especially so coming out of COVID where people are even more isolated today.

They don’t know how to be friends, Gen Z. they don’t take risks because of fear of being dropped. They struggle having dialogue “Because you might block me. So, we don’t have dialogue.”

What kind of social relationships are we modeling?

Ann: As parents, as I’m hearing this, why don’t we get involved. Why don’t we research it? I know one, they’re tired; their lives are demanding. What are the other reasons?

Jeremiah: They’re like me. “Triplets; stick the iPad in front of them and have a moment of peace please.” But it’s incumbent upon us, just like every other generation before us, we’re going to have challenges. Think of the television; think of the radio; think of going to the movies.

What do we do right now in the Johnston home?

Dave: Yes, what are your guard rails?

Jeremiah: By the way, I’m not endorsed by anything I’m about to share. I don’t get money off any of this. I’ve had to research this.

Number one, I have learned how to turn off my son’s gaming devices using Alexa. He hates it. By the way, there’s some really cool research about men and boys right now as far as gaming goes. Guys will talk to each other while they’re gaming.

Dave: Shoulder to shoulder.

Jeremiah: They’ll go out for pizza, and then they might continue the conversation over Fortnight or whatever. There’s community there.

So, it’s not having the same devastating effects on men that perhaps social media is on young ladies, because social media is “Do I have as many likes as her?” “I don’t look like her.” “I’m not with that guy,” to where it seems to be more isolating for females.

But even so, I’ve figured out, and again I’m a busy guy just like so many of our leaders and our listeners and families, but I had to come to a point where [when] Justin played his game all night long had red eyes the next morning looked like a zombie, [and] I could tell “This has gone to far.” Now when it’s time for dinner, “Alexa, turn off the X-box,” and it’s off. It’s a beautiful that I learned to do.

Dave: They can’t say, “Alexa, turn on the X-box.”

Jeremiah: No, no. We don’t allow that. Yes, there’s little things like that. I do have—there’s some great software out there where with the click of a button I can shut down Lilly’s phone. She’s the only one in our home—and what’s my advice on cell phones? Wait as long as you possibly can to get your child a cell phone. They’re going to scream for it. Then if you do have to give them a phone, I wish I had started with a phone that doesn’t have all the apps; saying, “We can reach you if you need to be picked up from practice.”

Ann: You wish you would have done it differently.

Jeremiah: I absolutely do. With Justin, we’re doing it differently. He hates it, but I’ve learned my lesson.

But with Lilly it’s been healthy to have those conversations with her. I showed her the clip that I just shared the quote for Scott Galloway. I said, “Honey, Scott Galloway and I don’t have the same beliefs about Christianity, but we do agree on the devastating consequences of social media. Listen to this clip.”

I’m educating her. I think we need to bring girls into the conversations about how toxic these apps are. Whistle blowers from these big tech companies know that these apps are toxic.

What I’m advocating for parents is “You don’t just have the right. If you’re a mom and dad, you have the responsibility to absolutely curate the digital experiences your children are having. You should know what they’re watching. You should know what’s on their phone.

I pay for this app, Qustodio, that works with apps or with iPhones, in particular. I can tell that she’s had 43 minutes of screen time today. I can see she was on BeReal at 9:48, and then with a click of a button I can shut it down. I can protect her from YouTube, which we have to be careful with YouTube. YouTube has autoplay on it for different videos. It will just keep playing. There [are] things that can happen that you didn’t even intend because of autoplay.

Ann: When you shut it down, some parents are “Just shutting it down. That’s because I have this say,” which is true which is good. But you’re also having other discussions with her of why and then-

Jeremiah: Totally, no, that’s—we lead with that. “What do real friendships look like? What do real authentic relationships look like?” And they’re not based in social media. We talk about that. That’s the last option. But what I love is I can track her usage for a digital footprint. I do that as a parent. You better believe I do that.

There [are] times that I’ve had to step in on a conversation that was happening on text messages with my daughter. [Laughter] Yes, do you break in on a text feed? Lilly would be cringing listening to this right now. Yes, I do, and I’m proud of it.

I’m not beyond calling a kid’s parents saying, “Tell your kid to not call this late at night.”

Ann: I’ve talked to parents that I feel like they’re naïve; where a mom might have teenaged sons that are 15 16. She says, “Oh, I don’t check anything. He loves Jesus. He’s a great kid.”

Dave: —which is probably all true.

Ann: I say, “I don’t doubt any of that, and I don’t doubt that you’re a great mom. But to have those conversations, that’s important and just to be having that dialogue and to put some protection.” I think I said, “Wow! Good for you. But I just want you to know I want Dave to have that. I want all my sons to be having some sort of accountability. I feel like that’s a biblical concept.”

Jeremiah: It is. I appreciate you bringing that up for the moms out there. It’s not an age level; it’s a responsibility thing. We have the responsibility to check in on our kids because I won’t share on this program, but I’ve heard the devastating stories of parents who didn’t, who now advocate for mom and dad.

Again, how do kids show us they’re having anxiety social media? Constant headaches constant stomach aches. They don’t say, “I’m having an anxiety problem.” If they’re starting to isolate themselves from things that they used to really enjoy. These are all of the ramifications of “Maybe there’s an issue that you can’t see because there’s a whole world happening virtually in that girl’s mind or that son’s mind that we need to be aware of.”

I just advocate for “Please raise awareness.” That’s what I think is so powerful about our discussion today. Know your kid’s digital imprint. Just know they’re touching their phones 2,000 times a day and they’re seeing 10,000 messages a day on their phone media messages, so get ahead of it. Start having those tough conversations. As parents we have those crucial conversations with our kids. I just encourage you.

Lilly is now, I’m happy to say, getting it. She’s understanding, “No, it’s not healthy for me being on my phone all the time.” We don’t let phones in private places. There’s a place [where] we all put our phones in, in the house at night. These are just small little things that make a huge difference.

Dave: Yes. Has she responded? Was it initially “Dad, please don’t bring it up again?”

Jeremiah: “You’re the worst dad in the world.” I’m not cool because I won’t let her have Snap. Now she knows “No, I actually care about you. I care about your mental health. I care about your spiritual life. I care about confidence. You have such a great personality. You need to be outside with people talking and doing things skate boarding whatever.”

Yes, she is getting it. But it’s part of education. It’s like what you said, Ann. It’s not just turning it off; “These are big bad phones we can’t have.” No, this is a fact of life we’re going to deal with. Smart technology going forward artificial intelligence machine learning. We need to know how to manage it with responsibility.

Ann: I’m guessing, too, that conversation begins as our kids are younger. I’m thinking of my oldest granddaughter. [She] is eight. She’s dying for a phone already. Our son and daughter-in-law they’ve had this conversation—it’s been ongoing—of why she doesn’t right now and why their friends do maybe but that’s their friend’s family and this is what it looks like.

I think to be able to begin with those conversations early: “It may look different for our family.”

Jeremiah: Yes, that’s right.

Ann: That’s okay. But also, talk to the family that’s never had anything, no restrictions no boundaries. How do they begin? What does that look like? Let’s say they have a 14-year-old.

Jeremiah: I think if they have a real conversation with a 14-year-old, the 14-year-old will probably reveal some things that they’ve seen or done online that might be shocking to the family because it just happens. It’s bent that way.

Ann: What would the conversation start like?

Jeremiah: The conversation would be “How are you doing in your digital space? Tell me about your online friends. Tell me how you interact with them. What kind of messages are they sending [you]? Do you have the same friends in real life that you have online or are those different groups? What is the nature of your conversations? What kind of pictures do you post of yourself, selfies? What kind of things do you like and interact with content? What kind of content drives the conversation?”

Those are great ways to look at it and not make it this big bad thing this elephant in the room, but make it a conversation [and] say, “What do you think are healthy approaches to that? Because just like we’re not going to drop you in to a digital world that’s so dangerous without having some real healthy, healthy guard rails that protect you.

Dave: I think a great question would be “Have you seen anything that you fell has been harmful to you?” I guarantee your kids, if they’re going to be honest, “Well?” and that alerts them to “Yes, there is good and there’s bad, and I need to be wise. Dad and Mom are trying to help me be wise.”

What about porn?

Jeremiah: That is huge. I’ve had to have this talk with Lilly, as well, because it’s so pervasive for our young men.

Ann: —oh yes, with young girls, too, now.

Jeremiah: —that you just need to assume that they probably have dabbled in it in some way. So, “We have to protect ourselves, our purity.” That’s why I had to step in on one text feed.

Again, that’s why it’s undeniable with my four sons it’s not even a question when they have devices in their hands that can access things like that, they will have all the locks in place, because I do. It’s a healthy thing to protect ourselves.

Here’s the sad thing: When our boys are gaming, an ad will come up. They don’t care about that ad. They might accidentally touch it. Then that ad takes them to a weird website that has seductive things on it. It was completely harmless, and it hooks them. But if you have some kind of blocking software in place of any kind—

Ann: Even gaming?

Jeremiah: —even with gaming you can do that. It will protect you from being then linked, taken out of that ecosystem of the game to the website that has this ad that links the two. It will protect them. It will just stop it. Then it will even alert your phone and say,
“Justin has some irregular activity. You need to go check that out.”

Ann: Can you say what that is? The block you use for gaming.

Jeremiah: The same one; the Qustodio.

Ann: Oh, it is.

Jeremiah: Yes, for their iPads, it works for gaming. It won’t let your phone go to those sites, so it’s huge.

Ann: Hopefully, parents won’t—I was awful—I’m just going to say—I would come downstairs with three teenaged boys. They could be gaming or doing whatever. It’s two in the morning. I was like a crazy woman. I’d say, “What are you guys doing up so late?” 

Then the other thing, I remember when gaming they started being able to do it with other people all over the place. I’d say, “Wait! You’re talking to people around the world? This can’t be a good thing.” Then “Are they Christians?” You guys, I was crazy.

Don’t be like me. Try to be calm.

Jeremiah: Keep the conversation going.

Ann: Yes.

Jeremiah: Even with gaming—I was with a friend. I was speaking somewhere over the weekend. He looked up my son. A fun thing you can ask people is what’s your gamer tag because there’s always a funny story behind that. He said, “You’ve done a great job. I can’t see anything that Justin does. I can’t even see the games he plays.”

You can put those protections in place and make it a fun environment and not be a legalist about it either. We can’t be a legalist about it. That will push them away even more. We have to have safety in place and then lead them through it. Because that’s the world they’re living in. That is Gen Z.

Shelby: Stick around to hear more from Dave and Jeremiah as they process how to talk with your kids about both the positives and negatives of social media in the world today.

Hi, I’m Shelby Abbott. You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Jeremiah Johnston on FamilyLife Today.

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Here’s Dave and Jeremiah with some closing thoughts.

Dave: I would say, “It’s on us as parents to have that conversation.

Jeremiah: Totally.

Dave: It’s so easy to think, “The Christian school can handle that—the youth pastor, our kids’ pastor. It’s us. If you’ve never had that conversation with your son or daughter, I’s say today’s the day.

Like you said, Jeremiah, don’t come in there with legalism and a law but just start a conversation gently, because they’re probably not going to want to step right there and reveal what is going on. But if you say, “This is a beautiful, wonderful gift, technology is, but it can destroy your soul.”

Jeremiah: It’s not just a Christian thing. This is how my daughter is. Because they’re so influenced by scientism. “Honey, here’s an atheist who’s a professor like your dad. I’m a Christian. But we both agree this is harmful, so what does that say to you, Lilly, if we’re all agreeing religion or not.” Because she [will say], “Oh, that’s just some Christian thing.”

“No, we’re all agreeing this is harmful. It’s like the Surgeon General’s warning for cigarettes. We need one of those for social media.

Shelby: Imagine walking the dusty roads of Galilee with Jesus of Nazareth, braving jostling crowds just to touch the edge of his cloak and to hear Him say, “Take heart, daughter, your faith has healed you.”

Those words once meant to comfort a hurting woman’s soul thousands of years ago, were also meant for you. Tomorrow, Kristi McLelland is joining Dave and Ann to talk about Jesus and women. I’m excited for that, and I hope you’ll join us.

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

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