A Conversation with Teen Screen Expert Dr. Kathy Koch

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Each year around early December, Focus on the Family re-airs a dozen of its most popular radio broadcasts (out of 260). On that short list of what we call the Best of the Best was a two-day broadcast by Dr. Kathy Koch. Not long ago, Kathy and I were both asked to speak at the same conference and were given booth space to display (and sell) our books. Kathy’s table was near mine, and while her area was jammed with nearly nonstop traffic,  mine was so sparse you would’ve thought  I was signing up people for cleanup duty afterwards. It was at that conference, though, that I made a new friend. Kathy is a special lady with a special message.

She took time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her new book, Screens and Teens, (and a new Focus broadcast that begins airing March 3) just before boarding a plane to head to Hungary for a speaking engagement.

Bob Waliszewski: You’re not advocating that Christian parents get rid of all technology in their homes and go back in time to the 1890s. You see the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to technology, especially screen time. Let’s start with the good. What are you most jazzed about?

Kathy Koch: I’m excited that our young people are able to see what’s going on around the world in real time. Sometimes it’s frightening because it’s raw, unedited real-time footage of war and tragedy, but what that can do for kids who are raised in a hopeful environment is instill in them the desire to make a difference. So, I am constantly meeting teenagers who want to improve the world and know how they want to do that.  They’re very aware and I think that’s really exciting.

Waliszewski: So, what concerns you and why?

Koch: Well, today’s technology can cause a disconnect. It’s possible that parents and their teens and even young children are so in tune with their screens that they’re ignoring what’s going on around them. Parents who are using a camera phone to take pictures of an event rather than being fully present at that event; and the emotional connection and the bonding and the conversation that could’ve taken place. Kids who are learning that it’s okay to disrespect the elderly because they’re texting rather than listening to grandpa tell an old story. So, it has to do a lot with the permission to disconnect. The permission tends to give us a reason to ignore what’s going on around us, that concerns me.

I am also concerned about the potential for unhealthy relationships forming where parents are not aware of who their kids are connecting with, and children watching video programming on a handheld device that mom and dad don’t know that they’re watching.

Waliszewski: You’ve expressed concern that teenagers (and I would assume you’d say adults, too, at times) turn to technology to meet their five core needs; security, identity, belonging, purpose and competence. What do you mean by that?

Koch: I believe that God designed us with needs that need to be met through Him. He is our trust, our security and our truth. And our identity found in Him is more important than any other identity. But today’s kids are finding their identity in how many Facebook friends they have. Their identity might be a score that they got on a game or an app. Their belonging is to these false relationships that really aren’t real. Technology can really get in the way. Now it can instill in them a positive—it’s possible through technology that kids have access to the Bible via an app. And it’s possible that they’ll become more spiritually mature; they might listen to some great preachers, for instance. However, I’m also concerned about adults and kids who get a Bible verse a day on an app and think that’s been their quiet time. I think what parents need to be doing is modeling the appropriate use of technology when it comes to spiritual development, so that the core needs are still met in God even if technology is a way of having that happen.

Waliszewski: You say that when you’re speaking and you ask parents how many of them find it hard to get their teens to turn off their cell phones, stop listening to their music or power down any screen they may be watching, that nearly every hand goes up. And when you ask how many of these parents also find it hard to detach from their cell phones, you get a lot of nervous laughter. So, is it really realistic?

Koch: I think it’s very realistic when the family makes a commitment, and I know that from people who have already experienced my teaching on this topic and have implemented the ideas and I get the most amazing feedback. I’m not saying there won’t be some pushback and some doubts. The thing about it, Bob, it’s not just, what do we not want to do, but what do we do instead? So, if we simply say to the kids, turn off all your screens and they sit on the couch like a bump on a log, of course they’re going to be miserable and there’s going to be tension and stress. But, let’s get out a puzzle. Let’s get out a game. Let’s read aloud. Let’s go miniature golfing. Let’s go make snow angels if we live in the winter climate. So, it’s not just what don’t we do. It’s what do we do instead. I think if we think more about the substitution idea we’re going to get more agreeable kids. Not necessarily the first day, but so many kids have said to me, “Dr. Kathy, you were right and I am more content with less screen time.”

Waliszewski: In chapter 7, you talk about a family using Plugged In. Obviously, my favorite chapter and thanks for your kind recommendation. But what is it about Plugged In that impresses you the most?

Koch: I love that you’re using biblical standards when helping parents decide whether or not games, shows, movies are safe and healthy and good and right.  Because the Bible should be the authority. God and His word ought to be what we are turning toward for making decisions. Although there are other ways that we can maybe get ratings on movies, you’re helping us understand from a biblical standpoint whether or not there’s anything redeemable in the movie. Whether or not that game is something that would be appropriate for kids being raised in a Christian worldview environment to be playing. So, I love the Christian perspective. I think that you guys are extremely fair. I like all the detail where the violence, the sex, the language, the plot development…  It’s very detailed.  You give tons of information that allows parents and even teens who go there to make well informed decisions.

Who wrote this?

Bob Waliszewski is the director of the Plugged In department. His syndicated "Plugged In Movie Review" feature is heard by approximately 9 million people each week on more than 1,500 radio stations and other outlets and has been nominated for a National Religious Broadcaster's award. Waliszewski is the author of the book Plugged-In Parenting: How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids With Love, Not War. You can follow him on Twitter @PluggedInBob.

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