Your Phone Has Made You Someone New

Interview with Tony Reinke

Audio Transcript

Hunter Beless: Welcome to the Journeywomen Podcast. I’m your host, Hunter Beless. Life’s a journey we were never meant to walk alone. We all need friends along the way. On the Journeywomen Podcast we’ll chat with mentors about gracefully navigating the seasons and challenges we face on our journeys to glorify God.

On today’s episode of the Journeywomen Podcast, I’m chatting with Tony Reinke on the topic of smartphone use. I know you guys are cringing, and it’s tempting to dodge this episode given the topic, but I really want to encourage you to listen, as it’s such an important conversation for us as believers. Tony and I talked about everything from the challenges affiliated with smartphone use to how we can actually use them to do what God has called us to do more effectively. We also talked about how to wisely disciple our children in regard to their use of technology. It was super helpful for me as a mom to two little people. I would venture to say this is actually one of the most helpful conversations that I’ve had on the podcast.

So you’ll know him a little better, Tony is an author and a nonprofit journalist in the Twin Cities area. He writes about many things, but especially the intersection of where technology and digital media meet the Christian life. He’s also the host of the Ask Pastor John podcast and a Senior Teacher at Welcome to the Journeywomen Podcast, Tony.

Truth Hurts

I am admittedly a little nervous to talk to you because you’re theologically astute, but you’re assuring me that you have your own struggles with smartphone use and you’re just trying to flesh this out in your everyday life. And I just admitted to you that I had your book for quite some time but avoided reading it because 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You sounded very convicting.

Tony: Yes, it is, and it is self-critique first of all.

Hunter: I was a little nervous, and I must admit I am convicted reading it, but it’s that type of conviction that you experience when you’re reading your Bible, and the Spirit is prompting you and pricking your heart, and I’m so thankful for it. I really appreciate you writing this book. Thank you for taking the time to do that.

Tony: I appreciate the commendation. That’s really kind. It is self-critique. The title is clearly saying this is going to hurt a bit. I’m getting some great emails, stories of twentysomethings going home and finding mom has strategically placed the book on the pillow for her son. I heard from a lady who was reading the book in a London subway and getting all sorts of curious, weird looks as people saw the title, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, as all the other people are on their phones. So this book definitely throws shade beyond its size.

“Stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleeplessness — all those things are growing more common.”

But it’s for people who are willing to self-critique, and that’s what Christians are. The very basis of wisdom is to mistrust our own intuition as Proverbs lays out (Proverbs 3:5–8). So those are the kinds of people that I’m writing for, who naturally question their own impulses and check their decision-making with God’s word. I could have tried to hide that a little bit, but I just wanted to come out and say, “Hey, the phone is changing us, and we need to think about how and why it’s been a good change and where it’s been a bad change and just deal with those things honestly.”

Ten Years of Tech

Hunter: Yes, this is an absolutely important conversation for us. I’m a stay-at-home mom. I have a three- and a one-year-old baby girl, and the phone is — admittedly — right there all the time. And so, I needed this book myself just to kind of reconsider what I’m doing. I think one of the first things that caused me to reconsider what I’m doing is when my one-year-old actually brought me my phone, as though it were like an appendage that I was missing. She knew that mommy always has her phone, and just that simple action caused me to question, “Wow, how often does she see me with my phone? And is this something that I want her to remember me having with me at all times?” It was super convicting.

I’d love to hear a little bit more about what inspired you to actually take on the endeavor of writing a book like this.

Tony: Yeah, that’s a great question. I write as a nonprofit journalist to get things off of my mind. I wrestle with random questions like: Should Christians watch R-rated horror movies? What about PG-13 horror movies? What about missing Sunday church for kids’ sports? Can you do that? Should you do that seasonally? I love jumping into those questions because they’re so complex. They require a lengthy treatment. You can’t just write one article on smartphones; it calls for long-form to process what’s at stake.

And what I needed personally was time to think through and humble myself before God for my own misuse of digital media and smartphones for ten years — since the first iPhone. I have a similar story as you told. A couple of summers ago, my family — we have a sixteen-year-old son, a thirteen-year-old daughter, and an eleven-year-old son — we were out camping along the North Shore, which is this beautiful area north of Duluth in Minnesota. It’s beautiful. Waterfalls everywhere. Huge cliffs that go down into Lake Superior. A landscape like giants were spinning dice, and those dice are massive boulders the size of a refrigerator made of solid iron ore, scattered all over the land and lakes.

In the midst of all this we found one really amazing waterfall. It was about a twenty-five-foot drop from the top down into the drop pool. And it was fairly well hidden because the state park in which it’s at doesn’t have any infrastructure to get to it. So there are no trails to get to it, and it’s not on any official maps. We heard from one of the locals. So we went and we found it. It has a beautiful drop pool about a hundred feet across that you can swim in and just enjoy. Just an incredibly powerful waterfall.

After a while, my sixteen-year-old son — he’s a daredevil. He loves to think of the most dangerous thing he can do on any family trip. He says, “You know what? I want to jump off the top of this waterfall into the plunge pool.” So, twenty-five feet is pretty high up. The water’s dark. You can’t really tell if there are boulders or anything in this dark drop pool and so we say, “No way. You are not going to do this at all.”

So this is about 10:30am. It starts to get warmer and warmer. By about noon, it’s ninety degrees out, and a couple of road workers who work for the state pulled up. We heard their truck and then we saw them walk over to the waterfall, and each of these guys stripped down to their shorts and they jumped from the top of the waterfall down into the pool to cool off.

And they get out and they go back on the top and it’s like they have done this every day. It’s like part of their natural routine. And so, of course my son is watching all this. And so he comes back to Mom and Dad, and he says, “Hey, I see it’s safe. You got to let me do this.”

So I said, “Okay. We’ll let you do this under one condition. We’re going to let you jump off this twenty-five-foot waterfall, and we are not going to record it. We’re not going to record it on Mom’s phone. We’re not going to record it on Dad’s phone. We’re not going to record it on your phone. But you can make the jump.” And in that moment, he threw his arms up in the air, and he said, “Well, then, what’s the point? What’s the point of jumping off that waterfall if you can’t film it?”

And it dawned on me in that moment. All of the sudden the Lord just brought this conviction on me personally. I realized that I had trained him to this point. This was not something he self-disciplined. This is me, ten years of my iPhone at baseball games, at basketball games, on family vacations, everywhere we go my phone is there, my son is an actor before my smartphone. I have conditioned him to think it’s only worth doing if it’s being recorded and spread on social media.

That was a very humbling moment for me as a dad. Now, we went back and forth and we negotiated, and we decided we would film his jump, but he couldn’t share it immediately. He would have to wait a week, and he would have to give up his smartphone for the rest of the family vacation.

Hunter: Wow.

Tony: Which was absolutely a good trade.

Hunter: Good parenting move.

Tony: That’s how parenting teens works. You say, “Absolutely not,” then arrive at somewhere in the middle.

Take a Step Back

Hunter: Well, there had to be something in you, too, that caused you to think that way? Did you have a hunch that he may not want to do it if he wasn’t able to record it?

Tony: Oh, I knew that’s exactly why he wanted to do it, because then he could show his friends. It wasn’t about showing off to his family; it wasn’t about just experiencing the thrill in the moment. It was about the affirmation and the approval culture that he’s been conditioned to appeal to, and to take the best things that he’s got in his life to put up on public display so people can like and share it. So he’s been conditioned by the social media culture, but he’s also been conditioned by a dad who’s had a phone camera in his face for ten years.

So that was a humbling moment, and it came at the end of writing the book. It landed on me. I could have written a book about how our teens are addicted to smartphones and they’re ruining their lives and we need to fix them. But the reality is for us — it’s like your child bringing you your phone. It’s like we need to step back and look at what we are training them to become when we keep our noses in laptops for days on end. How has that conditioned our kids?

“You need to find times in your life in which you can just simply step away from the phone.”

And we have to come clean with that, and we have to humbly repent for those patterns before our kids and let them see that this is not just an issue for mom and dad. This is not just an issue for teens. This is not just an issue for tweens. This is an issue that’s really across the spectrum — even the elderly. Look at adoption rates for smartphones among the 72-plus — it’s astronomical. But the people that I see most addicted to their phones are like fifty-plus, honestly.

Hunter: Yeah, I agree.

Tony: It’s like fifty-plus folks are always trying to hand me their phones to show me their favorite memes. So it’s a problem across the spectrum of all age demographics. But parents I think do need to wrestle with: How have we conditioned our kids? We shouldn’t just assume that the habits that they’ve picked up are somehow theirs alone to be accountable for.

Hunter: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, especially as a lot of our demographic of listeners are moms staying at home, there is such a temptation to turn to the phone as an escape from the present realities of just the mundane work of motherhood. And there’s so many things, Tony, so many things I want to talk to you about because I love the way you laid this out in your book. And I really want to encourage people to go get it and to read it, despite knowing that it will probably prick your heart in lots of different ways.

Why We Crave Distraction

Hunter: I want to tether this conversation to the gospel, because I think a lot of times we’re fearful of this conversation because we think we’re going to have to totally ditch all of the smartphone technology in order to walk in holiness. So can you frame this conversation for us around the gospel? How does the gospel free us up in our decision making when it comes to smartphone use?

Tony: Yeah, the gospel comes into play at every level of the discussion in the book. The gospel is the thing that I keep orienting all the questions and the problems around because, honestly, we have study after study showing us that too much on our phones has pretty profound cumulative effects on our physical health — not for the better. Things like inactivity and obesity are on the rise. Stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleeplessness — all those things are growing more common. When we cannot get to sleep, we grab for our phone at 1:00am in bed. And it just makes the problem worse.

You can look at all the studies on posture, eye strain, headaches, hypertension, and new forms of stress-induced shallow breathing patterns. When we’re engaged in a debate or something or there’s something urgent online, our breathing slows down. The physical consequences of our smartphone habits often go unnoticed because just in the matrix of the digital world we simply lose the sense of bodies and posture and our breathing patterns, heart rate, all those things.

But I think under all these consequences we find underlying for why we habitually grab for our phones. And those are the cravings, the hopes, the wants, the hidden and the secret and often anonymous desires that control us from the inside. Those are the things that animate our thumbs and feed our habitual impulses toward our phones. And so I’m trying to get at those root issues.

So in each of the twelve ways, I’m taking a problem that has been identified broadly by culture, by psychologists, and I’m breaking them down into what is the desire behind that impulse.

All that to say: The gospel comes into play at every single place. It comes into why we want distractions. It comes into play in understanding why we ignore people around us. It comes into why we crave approval.

Jesus says in Matthew 10:37, “Whoever loves” — and you fill in the blank — whoever loves their social media network “more than me is not worthy of me.” There’s something exclusive about Christ. He wants our ultimate affection. He does not want to share our affection with our social media network. He wants us to be devoted to him wholeheartedly. But we crave that immediate approval, and so we go online and we want people to approve us.

It has implications for our literacy. It has implications for how we ignore created beauty. We get so infatuated with produced content that’s on a screen that we lose a sense of the beauty of what God has created. So when it comes to the gospel question, it just throws open the door to the whole book, because I think everything that we do with our smartphones has some gospel implication, and the book is really just me trying to tag specific biblical topics to what I see in my own digital misuse.

Losing Our Literacy

Hunter: You know, you mentioned Bible literacy, and I thought that was a really interesting element of the book. How does the digital age impact our Bible literacy and our ability to read and understand Scripture?

Tony: Smartphone abuse doesn’t make us illiterate. It makes us aliterate. We just grow lazy with our literacy, our powers of concentration. Christians are a people of the Book. But Scripture is, for most of us — probably all of us — the oldest book we’ll ever try to read. It’s the longest book we’ll ever try to read. It’s the most complex book we’ll ever try to read. It’s got the most authors we’ll ever try to read in one book. It’s daunting at every level. But the nature of Scripture puts a premium on serious literacy, on being able to carefully and slowly comprehend and read.

So it’s no wonder that Jesus’s most common rebuke is the question, “Have you not read?” He says that over and over (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10, 26; Luke 6:3). “Have you not read?” It means you have your Bible in your hand, but why haven’t you comprehended it? And for Jesus, what he’s pointing out is a place of spiritual hardening, not just pure literacy. But we see that Spirit-wrought literacy is a supernatural gift given to us so that we can see invisible things.

“We are conditioned to think it’s only worth doing if it’s being recorded and spread on social media.”

We have to cultivate out literacy. We lose our literacy — we lose the substance of the things we hope for. Hoping is a confidence put in things unseen (Hebrews 11:1). So we’re trying to see things we can’t see with our eyes, and that requires literacy, concentration, seeing through the veil of this world and seeing as God sees, not as man sees. Man sees breaking news. Man sees what’s on a screen. Man sees just the media that surrounds us. God wants us to see through that and to see eternal glories. We must preserve our literacy to do that.

Too Close for Comfort

Hunter: So many of us are seeking Bible literacy and we have our Bibles open in the mornings, but you know what, I’ll just admit right here that I am so guilty of having my smartphone right there, right next to me. And I can almost feel that anxiety of having it so close, tangibly. What is the importance of pushing back our phones early in the morning when we’re practicing the spiritual disciplines and really seeking to reorient ourselves to the gospel before we start our day in those early morning hours?

Tony: Yeah, that’s so key. Charles Spurgeon said, “If Satan can disrupt your devotions, he can disrupt your day.” As soon as we wake up and it’s time to meet with God, we’re in an immediate warfare for our affections and attention. And physically, I think, for me, personally, I have to separate myself from my smartphone.

Hunter: Me too. Yes, it’s got to be in a different room.

Tony: If I don’t, it’s going to dominate my attention. I mean there’s studies now that show if the smartphone is within your reach, some part of your brain processing power is constantly asking, “Should I tweet this? Should I share this? Should I check my phone?”

Hunter: I totally feel that. It’s what, every 4.3 seconds we check our phones?

Tony: 4.3 minutes — that’s the highest number I’ve found. That would be like 220 times a day. Some people would say it’s more about 85 times a day; the numbers are different. But we all know this impulsive desire to grab for our phones. It’s just there, and we need to separate ourselves from it. That’s true of fellowship, too. I know people who leave their phones in the car when they go to Sunday church.

So physical proximity, just leaving the phone out of the bedroom. Some people find that more helpful. You can put your alarm on and leave the phone in the living room. You’ll still hear the alarm and get up. There are a lot of little practices, but physical proximity is a danger.

Hunter: Yeah, it absolutely is. Well, I think that, in a way, is a kind of litmus test to see where we’re at in our relationship with our phone. Just thinking, “Do I have to have my phone when I’m doing my Bible study? Is it essential to post about my Bible study on Instagram in order for it to have happened and to be legitimized by other people?”

What Your Heart Really Wants

Hunter: What are some other litmus tests that we can use or that you might be able to describe for us that would help us determine where our hearts are right now in regard to the use of technology?

Tony: A good place to start would be to ask a spouse. And ask a child.

Hunter: That’s a little scary, Tony.

Tony: Yes, even more scary than reading my book is going to be an honest assessment from those around you. Because we use the phone for an escape, and it oftentimes gets in the way of what God has called us to do. I think my call for Christians through this book is to think, and ultimately it comes back to this bigger question: What has God called you to be and to do?

This is where we stand apart from the world. The world is saying, “Yeah, we’ve got all these physiological problems as a result of our smartphones. Apple, please give us limits and whatever.”

Great, that conversation needs to happen. But as Christians, we have to ask: What responsibilities has God given you in your family, in your church, at work, at school, in your community? What has God called you to do in these specific spheres? This is your highest priority, and it’s only when you have some sense of clarity here that you can then safely figure out what you should be doing with your smartphone to begin with.

Because then you can decide what’s a waste of time and what’s not a waste of time. Lots of people want to talk to me about smartphones, and this is the question that seems to underlie everything else. Christians feel aimless and their lives feel pointless and they live without any clear sense of God’s call. And when you have a vacuum there, there’s going to be an addiction to distraction and digital media.

That’s a huge problem, and I think this is going to be one of the main calls for Christian leaders in the future to shepherd people to understand the call of God on their lives and to see that smartphone addiction is merely a symptom of this greater problem: the loss of divine call, the loss of eternal purpose. And that’s what’s killing us.

Hunter: Because you said the smartphone and the way in which we engage with it is really just an extension of who we are.

Tony: Exactly. The screen on our phones is an exposé of what our hearts most want. It’s like we’re looking down into our own narcissistic reflection in a way that no other culture has looked at their own reflection, because this is not just your face reflected. This is the sometimes lurid and sinful desires that are in our heart, manifested before our eyes. And this is especially true when you think you are browsing anonymously. This is a conversation that obviously comes up with pornography. What you’re looking at on that phone is not some external thing that’s just coming your way to try to tempt you. This is something you have actually gone and looked for. What emerges on our phones is an exposé of our heart’s desires. And that is incredibly frightening. Our high-def screens are a reminder: this is what your heart wants.

Hunter: Yes — yes, it is.

Room for Everyone

Tony: Also, part of my heart is to call for artists to really use smartphones well and wisely.

Hunter: Right, like you and me right now. We couldn’t have this conversation if we didn’t have technology.

Tony: Exactly. So I’m trying to balance two different things. On the one hand, my wife is a full-time homemaker. She’s at home. She loves being at home and it’s great. And she looked at social media and her patterns for ten years, and she said, “You know what? I don’t think I’m doing my calling better by being on social media.” So she got completely out of social media — off Instagram, off Facebook. She’s been off for two and a half years now. She doesn’t congratulate herself because she also sees that there are lost opportunities to encourage people that she used to have on Facebook. So there’s always a downside.

So now she finds new ways to remind herself of birthdays, new ways to remind herself to reach out to old friends that live a long way away whom she wants to stay in constant contact with and encourage. So on the one hand, I’m trying to help people think through their vocations and whether smartphones are useful or not useful.

On the other hand, I’m trying to say, if you’re an artist — and I mean a painter, poet, prose artist, whatever — you can use social media in incredible ways. In fact, I’m going to go and speak to a roundtable of writers here in about an hour, and I’m going to encourage them with this fact that the prophets tell us that one day the knowledge of God is going to fill the earth like a global flood (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14). Not a flood like Noah’s flood. This is going to be a different flood. The Spirit’s going to be so thick, and the gospel is going to be so thick, it’s going to be like a global flood of the knowledge of God and his glory.

Hunter: It’s so awesome.

Tony: Yes, and as we look forward to that day — that amazing, incredible moment when Christ will return and everyone on earth will know everything there is to know about God’s glory that’s been revealed — it’s just going to be a phenomenal thing. But that is right now the charter; that’s the paradigm now for Christian writers. We’re seeking to fill the world with the knowledge of God’s glory.

And so, we can’t do this. Christ is going to come back and fulfill this supernatural work in the end, but there’s a pattern already set in place that then calls forth preaching, calls forth poetry, calls forth spoken word and hip-hop and music of all kinds and books of all kinds and podcasts like this one. There’s room for everyone to get involved in making art to proclaim the glory of Jesus Christ.

Because one day that knowledge is going to fill the earth, and we’re so far from that. But that’s the paradigm. So that’s the tension that I feel, then, with social media is it depends on: What has God called you to do, and what are you doing with it? Is it filled with purpose, or is it aimless? Is it selfish, or is it God-centered?

“Distracted driving is absolutely a sin. It’s not just illegal; it’s a sin against what Jesus commands us to do.”

Trying to build in a vision for social media has been one of the great challenges. Because there’s certain people who are just going to throw their phone away, go dumbphone — and they shouldn’t. And there’s other people who are going to have a smartphone and keep using it, and they should have a dumbphone, quite frankly. And so I’m just trying to throw enough categories into people’s lives that they can make a wise decision on what God has called them to do and be, and how they can succeed at that calling with their media.

Digital Detox

Hunter: So, if we recognize that we’ve really been missing the mark when it comes to social media use, smartphone use, technology, et cetera, what encouragement does the gospel offer, and what ought we do as believers if we realize that we are failing in this area?

Tony: Yeah, well, the first thing to realize is that we’re all going to fail digitally. We’re all going to make mistakes. We’re going to say stupid things that we shouldn’t have said on Twitter. We’re going to look at things online that we shouldn’t have looked at online. We’re going to be involved in futile discussions. We’re going to engage with irreconcilable people who have no intention on peacemaking; they’re just out to cause problems, and the Bible tells us very clearly to avoid such people (2 Timothy 3:1–5).

So first of all, we need to repent of the ways we’ve messed up, and if we’ve done that before our kids, we need to tell them and let them know that mommy and daddy have messed up and shouldn’t have done this and we shouldn’t have ignored you. You are a priority and we’ve ignored you by checking out online and we’re sorry. Yeah, I’ve done that several times with my kids and it’s painful, but it’s good.

As far as then what do you do, there’s a lot of things that are not very complicated. I think we all need to step away from our phones for at least two weeks every year, potentially one week every month, and one day every week. You need to find times in your life in which you can just simply step away from the phone. Digitally detox. Delete your social media apps. They’re very easy to reinstall. Trust me, delete them.

Hunter: They’re right there, just as you’ve left them after they come back.

Tony: Yes. For me, two weeks has always been about the right time for a digital detox. I do that once a year.

Step Out of Your Social Sphere

Hunter: Yeah, how do you work that with your job? Because you do everything pretty much exclusively online?

Tony: Yeah, I map this onto family vacations. A lot of times what I’ll do in those first three days, those will be family vacations. So it will be like, I’ll go off Saturday and that Saturday is the day we leave on a vacation, and then it’s the whole week of that vacation, and then the next week after. I’ll come back to email. Email is inescapable. Text messaging is inescapable. But otherwise, I’m off social media for two full weeks. It’s amazing — at least for me — the emotional roller-coaster that you go through. I try to not tell people that I’m going offline. And I would encourage other people not to. It’s very humbling to realize that no one even notices.

Hunter: No one missed you.

Tony: Right, and then you will be tempted to write a blog post on twenty things I learned from being offline for two weeks.

Hunter: Totally.

Tony: You have to fight that impulse because that’s not why you’re doing it.

Hunter: Right.

Tony: You’re doing it to be reminded that you are in the plan of God. You are easily replaceable. God has a lot of voices, and he has got a huge plan that is way beyond us getting two hundred likes on an Instagram post. And it is good to be reminded that we’re small.

Hunter: We’re dispensable.

Tony: We’re dispensable, and yet he really loves us. He died for us and he has shed the blood of his own Son to prove that he’s going to do everything necessary for us to thrive eternally (Romans 8:32). But it is humbling to realize that you can step out of your social sphere and not be missed at all.

Hunter: Yeah, totally. Well, I just love embracing the reality that we are dispensable because it just helps me take myself less seriously. While I know I should be handling the things that God has set before me as faithfully as I can, I do rest in the fact that he doesn’t need me to accomplish his purpose.

Digital Discipleship

Hunter: So, what would it look like, despite not being needed, to walk in obedience to the Great Commission — to go and make disciples of all nations? Is there a way in which we can do that? Maybe even seek to fulfill the Great Commission at some level by using technology?

Tony: This is one of the great benefits of living in the digital age. Imagine we live in a village of two hundred people. How many people can we talk to at once from home? Maybe five or six people. You could stand on the top of your barn and yell and maybe reach ten people, I don’t know. The average Facebook user can reach 200–300 people in about an hour.

Hunter: That’s crazy.

Tony: Wedding announcements, birth announcements, those kinds of things pop. We have an incredible power to reach a lot of people from the comfort of our own home. So we can continue to be dads and moms and discipling our kids at home and yet have a reach that’s way beyond geographically where we’re at, which is a great opportunity. I mean, if you look at the stats now of teenagers using YouTube, it is now the number one social media for teens.

Hunter: Interesting.

Tony: So it’s YouTube, Instagram, Snap, and then Facebook is down on the list. It’s fourth, and it’s dying among teens. Twitter is virtually dead among teens. And so, if you look at that list then, YouTube is where kids are going. And it offers an incredible opportunity for digital discipleship. Any time I can talk to church leaders, I’m encouraging them to try and find the late teens and early twentysomethings who can disciple online. I’m talking about young ladies who can just simply go on YouTube and talk about modesty in a way that’s just tasteful and age appropriate and talk to thirteen-year-old girls. What would you say?

“We’re all going to fail digitally. We’re all going to make mistakes.”

The opportunities here are massive. And I feel like we as a church haven’t quite equipped our young people to really take up those responsibilities, but I think there’s huge opportunity in YouTube videos growing massively. As much as I hate to say it, I think it is taking away from literacy, but I think video is going to be the dominant social media, especially because it already is among teens. But I think that’s continuing to grow as filming and editing is becoming more and more easy for folks to do on their phones.

Hunter: I would say I’m trying to do that from the comfort of my own closet right now, while my two babies are downstairs with their sweet babysitter. But I still feel that tension, Tony. Sometimes it’s hard. I just want to throw the baby out with the bathwater because I’m like, “Ugh, it’s so hard to give that pushback against that kind of moment-by-moment need for approval that just kind of naturally cultivates itself or makes its way into our hearts when we push things out online.” It’s like, “Oh, do people like it? Did they approve of it? Is it worthy of a thumbs-up?”

Fight Favorites and Likes

Hunter: So how can we give pushback to that desire for approval if we are trying to do this? I mean, obviously everybody who’s listening to this is trying to do this in a God-glorifying way.

Tony: Yeah, that’s so good. Smartphones put us in instant contact with friends, family, and strangers, so the good thing is we have that kind of reach. The bad thing is we have that kind of reach — and we want instant approval. Refresh, refresh, refresh. How many people are liking this? We can see, we can be seen, we want to immediately know who’s watching and approving, and we’ve been conditioned to post and publish and watch for those immediate ticks of human approval. We’ve been conditioned to do that.

Hunter: We can even hyper-spiritualize it and say, “If it’s not having as big of a reach as it did, then is it still what God wants me to do?” I felt that tension.

Tony: Yeah, absolutely. And I think this craving for human approval absolutely kills faith. I’m basing that on what Jesus says in John 12:42–43. I think every Christian who owns a smartphone should memorize John 12:42–43 because of what Jesus is speaking to the religious rulers. He says to them, “You want glory from your peers. You want human glory so much that my glory is completely invisible to you. You can’t see how glorious I am because you’re seeking human approval.”

Hunter: Yeah — totally guilty.

Tony: The craving for human approval absolutely kills our faith in Jesus. And I think you have to come to a convictional place in that and just realize that if we’re going to use social media, we have to die to that human approval. And that’s not something you do once. That’s something you do every time you post.

Break Free from the Metrics

Hunter: Yeah, okay. Well, can we have a conversation then about success in this, because sometimes I think we’re wondering, “What would you have me do with this X-Y-Z platform online, God?” And a lot of times we’re looking to the numbers to kind of dictate that, but how can we as believers submit ourselves to the will of the Lord in regard to this whole thing, and yet also balance whether what we’re doing is effective?

Tony: This is one of the most complex discussions that I have with authors. Every couple of years I send out a questionnaire to some of my favorite authors, and I’ve been able to get responses from a lot of really popular Christian authors. I’ll send out a little questionnaire and I’ll ask them, What’s a more valuable use of your time? What’s going to have more impact, writing fifteen significant articles or writing one book? If you had to choose one of the two, which is better?

And honestly, the responses I get are split. Some people say the articles are the way to go — you’re going to reach the most people. Some say, no, the book is the way to go because you’re going to get deeper into people’s lives by calling them to engage for six hours or however long it takes to read a book. And then I had one author friend of mine who said, “You know, Tony, to be honest with you, when I pray about this question, I don’t know what’s going to have a greater effect, whether it’s going to be my book” (and she’s got two best sellers) “or whether it’s going to be my blog” (which is a massive success) “or if it’s going to be the thing I told my daughter on the porch last night in the thunderstorm.”

“The Bible is as relevant to this age as it’s been relevant to any other age. These are perennial problems.”

That sort of corrected my whole understanding of what I was asking in those questionnaires. She was saying, we don’t know whether it’s going to be a New York Times best-selling book that’s going to have the longest eternal impact, or whether it’s going to be a blog that we pour our life and soul into, or a podcast, or whether it’s going to be the thing we tell our kids just in a moment that’s going to change their life and they’ll never forget it. And so I think we have to be careful about running the numbers and saying, “Well, the analytics are stronger here, therefore I must be having a greater impact.”

I think it comes down to this fact, and I think a lot of digital media organizations are taking a time out and realizing that Facebook has conditioned us all to take six social media attempts a day to make something stick, and hope that one does. Now those same organizations are stepping back to ask, “But what exactly are we trying to accomplish?”

The editor in chief of did an interview where she talked about how Facebook had conditioned Slate to essentially take six big shots a day, six big articles they published a day, and to see which one stuck and went viral. And they realized, “We need to stop doing this.” And so they said, “How about Monday morning we publish our major feature for the week, and then just condition our readers to know every Monday — they’re going to come back on Monday morning” —

Hunter: And there’s something there.

Tony: A big feature. It’s what they decided is the most important. So they break free from this social media metrics game. And so, you’re starting to see more and more digital media companies admit that social media put us in a certain rhythm that can be unhealthy and that misdirects the purpose of an organization. Ministries now are doing the same thing. Because it’s easy to know what’s going to get the hits — what’s going to get the page views, the clicks, the likes. You can gamify all of it.

So the question comes back to: What is the message that I’m trying to share? And so for me, this seems to open up another two-hour conversation where we could talk about how to determine internal messaging. But that’s really the question. It all goes back to calling: What has God called me to do and to be? What’s the message God has given me, and how do I not deviate from that even though, if I become a generalist, I can get more clicks, I can get more page views, more likes? I need to stay in this channel of what he’s called me to do, and that’s hard. That’s really, really challenging.

Hunter: Yeah, I think so much of it has to do with humility and seeing ourselves accurately, knowing that we are in desperate need of Jesus and of his Spirit that he has put in us, the Helper that he has given us to navigate these situations every single day. And that’s harder for me. It’s harder for me to look to the Spirit for help in regard to my social media use on a daily basis than it would be for me to create this law that I live by for the rest of my whole entire life when it comes to social media intake.

I just think with the humility piece, a lot of it has to do with welcoming in our community — the people that are in our local church and our families — and just lovingly engaging one another with this conversation and humbly inviting them to speak into our lives and to be kind of like a mirror and to reflect what we’re actually doing to ourselves. Because sometimes we’re unable to see that for ourselves, those blind spots that escape our vision.

Take Tech to the Word

Hunter: So do you have any helpful tips for engaging people in our lives, in a conversation about smartphone use in a way that’s not intimidating? Because I think everybody feels this tension, and then you become that — well, you know this more than anybody, Tony — then you become that guy or that girl who’s pushing up against something that’s a little uncomfortable for most people.

Tony: It is. It really, really is. This is why we must go to Jesus’s words. For example, when it comes to distracted driving, I look at the parable of the good Samaritan. Here’s a guy who’s busted up on the street, and the Jewish man just steps over him and walks away, and we don’t see flesh-and-blood needs on the street.

“YouTube is where kids are going. And it offers an incredible opportunity for digital discipleship.”

And that’s one of the reasons why texting and driving is not just breaking a law for a Christian; it’s breaking Jesus’s command not to look past the need of your neighbor on the street. You may be going fifty miles an hour down the street, and your neighbor’s going fifty miles an hour down the other side of the street. That’s your neighbor. You don’t know their name, you don’t know who they are, but that’s your neighbor on the street. So, distracted driving is absolutely a sin. It’s not just illegal; it’s a sin against what Jesus commands us to do.

So, look at the very specific words of Jesus and apply them to texting and driving. I guess something inside of me wants to say at this point that what I’m trying to do is to get a larger conversation going in our churches, not just about the consequences, but about the very technologies and how we use them ourselves.

And so what I’m hoping my book and all of my works, my articles, do is help churches and pastors and care group leaders take the conversation from here, because things are going to continue to change. Technologies will continue to change. Social media’s going to change.

I mean, speaking of YouTube as social media, it’s already weird to me. I’ve never thought of that. But that’s how teens today are making us think of YouTube. It is social media. So the conversation is not going to end. It’s going to become more complex. I mean, we’re talking now about robotics and all sorts of weird uses of companion robotics. We’re talking about artificial intelligence, transgender technologies. There’s all sorts of technologies that are going to continue to come out, so I’m hoping that the church can be comfortable asking questions about the smartphone because the technological questions that are coming at us are more complex, are even more weird, and are going to require even more fast action on the part of our leaders.

And so, being the guy with, quote, unquote, “all the answers to the smartphone,” I don’t have all the answers to the smartphone, but I’m pointing to Jesus. I’m pointing to the word, and I’m saying I think that the word is infallible. I think the word of God was written in a way to be relevant to every culture, and I think the word of God is relevant to the digital age, the computer age, the tech age.

And we just need more and more people reading their Bibles, thinking through things like: What does this proverb have to do with how you engage in social media? Because the Proverbs are full of, “Don’t use your tongue for this. Don’t use your mouth for that. Use your mouth for this.” All of that is just social media; it’s just dripping with social media relevance. And so, we just need eyes to see it, because I believe wholeheartedly the Bible is relevant. And after writing a book about our smartphone abuse, I can see that the Bible is as relevant to this age as it’s been relevant to any other age. These are perennial problems.

Parenting in a Digital Age

Hunter: Yeah. Well, I really appreciate you helping us make those connections. It’s just such a gift, and it almost models to me, Tony, how I might be able to think through those things not just on the level of technology, which is so important as you’re mentioning, because it’s ever changing and that’s a conversation that needs to continue regardless of the technological advance or as the technology continues to advance. But to also do that in things just as basic as parenting.

And so you just recently wrote an article on helping us navigate social media and technology use as parents. Do you have some practical tips on what we might want to think through as moms or as dads in regard to shepherding our children in how they use smartphone technology?

Tony: Well, there’s a lot of articles out there just saying that we need to pay more attention to our kids and their digital habits, but I wanted to really dive into the practices. Like, okay, what do we do as parents? I wrote an article called “Twelve Tips for Parenting in the Digital Age.” I’ve been wanting to write about how to raise teens in the digital age, not because I’ve figured it out, but because I think I’ve learned from my mistakes over the years, and because it’s the natural follow-up to my book.

Essentially what I’m trying to do is map for parents a vision of digital media in which you have complete control over the Wi-Fi in your home. And I encourage people to look at the Circle device or some sort of a device that allows you to limit web activity to every device and computer in the home. Once you have that clamped down — and it’s pretty easy to do now with the tools — you can filter things. And I’m not talking about parental controls on each device — I’m talking about a centralized device that governs the whole house, which makes it far easier. The Circle device is something we’ve used for a while. There are other options — even better options are on the market now.

“Smartphone addiction is merely a symptom of this greater problem: the loss of divine call.”

Once you clamp down and can control Wi-Fi in your home, then you start introducing tablets, you start introducing the computer, you start introducing YouTube maybe, social media, and you stairstep the introduction to digital media. I’ve got the processes that we’ve used laid out in that article. And then you’re leading up to a point. And you’ve got to pray about this. Your kid is going to get a smartphone at some point. When is that going to be? Is it going to by eighteen? Is it going to be sixteen? Is it going to be fourteen? The average age in America of smartphone-owning kids is 10.3 years old.

Hunter: Oh my gosh, yeah.

Tony: A lot of those are hand-me-downs, so parents just kind of give their old iPhone to their kid. They don’t think about it. I’m saying that’s a major mistake. You’ve got to stairstep them in their Wi-Fi use in the home, and then you get to a graduation point, which is the smartphone. That is a major transition point when you have virtually no more parental controls. And I can explain this through Snapchat and through texting and sexting and that whole phenomenon. In the article I go into the fact that sending nudes between teens and tweens is now a normative part of the teen years — frightening stuff. For girls who aren’t asking, they just get these text messages from boys. And I go into the scary details in the article.

Essentially what I’m saying is once you move into the smartphone, you now no longer have parental control over what your children see on their phone. And that’s a graduation for which you have to get your kids prepared. And you can do that in the home by clamping down on the Wi-Fi at home. And so, there’s a process that I’ve laid out that my wife and I use that’s in that article. So that’s essentially the gist of it.

There’s other steps like phone-free car rides, phone-free dinners, phone-free family vacations — a lot of the no-brainer stuff. Phone contracts are a big one: What’s expected of our children once they do have the smartphone? But essentially that’s it: thinking through the gradual process of introducing digital media to your kids, not just handing them a smartphone at age 10.3, but actually leading them to a place where they’re old enough and mature enough and they know the kinds of temptations out there via the phone, not because they’re going to be perfect on their phone, but because they realize what expected behavior is in place and set for them.

So, that’s the gist of what I get at in that article. The internet was commercialized in 1995, and everyone born after that point is considered iGen or Gen Z or post-Millennial. I go into the data on that demographic and show that teens today are very unique. They’re not like Millennials in a lot of respects.

They tend to be safer: they tend to be less likely to drive around without seatbelts on, less likely to smoke and engage in sexual activity. They’re safer. But they’re also online more. And so, I kind of give a sketch of what the data is showing about our teenagers and some of the challenges that they face, and map out a vision that parents can use to prepare their kids for the smartphone.

Hunter: Wow, I have a lot of work to do, Tony. Brooks and I are going to listen to this again and just sit down as a family, and I’m encouraged to just prayerfully consider this — to think through this more intentionally.

In Black-and-White

Hunter: What other resources would you recommend for somebody who desires to steward their phone and screen time better? Do you have any other things that you’d like to add?

Tony: You know, I thought about that question. I honestly don’t know. When I think of the things that helped me get off my phone, it’s just great books. It’s great hikes. The things that take me away from my phone are things more enjoyable to me than my phone. Those are the things that come to mind. But that’s not really tools or tricks.

There are some little things you can do. Like you can go into your settings on your phone, and you can change the screen to black-and-white. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried that.

Hunter: Yeah, I’ve heard of that. But I haven’t ever done it.

Tony: So I did it for a couple of weeks. It really helps because so much of the stimuli to our phones is in the colors, and if you actually mute the colors, it makes Instagram a little weird.

Hunter: Interesting.

Tony: But it severs the impulsive desire to click. It’s really interesting.

“Jesus does not call us to share our affection with our social media network. He calls us to be devoted to him wholeheartedly.”

Hunter: I need to do that for my daughter. Because I can see the addiction. Even at a one-year-old level. Because we just listen to Spotify — we will Spotify on walks and things like that, and I’ve noticed that she wants to be holding the phone. It doesn’t even interact with her necessarily. But she will click the buttons so she can see the picture of who’s singing or whatever. And I wonder if some of that is the addiction to the colors and just the illuminating glow of the screen.

Tony: Absolutely. It’s amazing how much addictive power you take out of the phone when it’s black-and-white.

Hunter: Okay, good. I’m going to do that right now.

Distracted from the Device

Hunter: Well, it sounds like I could already potentially answer some of your simple joys, because you’ve given us a few hints into what you’re interested in, but I love to ask this question of every guest because it just helps us to get to know you on a personal level a little bit better. What are three of your simple joys in life that help distract you from technology and smartphone use?

Tony: I love dates with my wife. Those are definitely phone-free zones. I love grilling with charcoal. I love the sound of a baseball on leather and lumber — the sound of a baseball when it hits the catcher’s mitt, the smack, the deep thud. And then on lumber, the crack of a wooden baseball bat on a baseball.

Hunter: What’s your team? Do you guys have a team in Minnesota?

Tony: I grew up in Nebraska, so I feel like I could freely choose my baseball team.

Hunter: Yeah, yeah, of course.

Tony: So I went with the Boston Red Sox. And I’ve been following them since 1984. Watching baseball is a great joy.

Hunter: I have really fond memories of watching baseball with my dad. He’s a Cardinals fan. It’s fun.

Live Smartphone Smart

Another question that I love to ask every guest — because I just recognize that all of us have had really influential brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us and who have really discipled us in the way of following Jesus. I’d love to hear who it is that’s had the greatest impact on your own personal journey with Jesus.

Tony: Oh my.

Hunter: It’s hard, isn’t it?

Tony: It’s really hard. I think I would have to say number one the Puritans. I’ve spent years reading Puritan literature: John Flavel, Thomas Boston, Richard Sibbes, Jonathan Edwards I would put in that category.

John Piper is big for me, because not only have I read his books; I’ve listened to his sermons over the years, and have spent seven years to get to know him, being discipled by him, asking him 1,400 questions in a podcast that we do. So, no one has per hour spent more time in my life speaking gospel truth than John Piper. He’s definitely up there. Otherwise, it’s just a stream of great authors that I love to read: Tim Keller, Don Carson, Herman Bavinck, a Dutch theologian.

Hunter: Oh, I love it. Well, I can totally tell that you’re a reader by your writing. It’s really well done. I just appreciate the work that you guys are doing up there, and I’m really grateful for you taking the time to come on the Journeywomen Podcast and chat with us about this really important topic, Tony. Thanks for your time.

Tony: Oh, it was a lot of fun. Thank you, Hunter.

Hunter: This was probably one of the most convicting episodes of the Journeywomen Podcast for me on a personal level. I’ve completely changed my smartphone use since having this conversation with Tony about a month ago. I bought an old-school alarm clock, asked for accountability, and started leaving my phone upstairs when I’m having my quiet time in the mornings. Guys, it’s made a huge difference. If you want to consider these things more deeply for yourself on an individual level, I highly recommend Tony’s book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.