Monday, October 29, 2012

Maintaining Relational Presence in a Technological World

Maintaining  Relational 

Presence in a

Technological World

by Rhett Smith
with Fuller Youth Institute
February 28, 2011

A shovel, a mirror, and a tray.

Recently I stood before a classroom of parents with these rudimentary objects.  The shovel, mirror, and tray presented stark contrasts to the technological tools I was trying to help parents view as influences that are shaping their kids’ lives.

The journey that brought me to this place of teaching parents about their teenager’s use of technology and how it shapes them may be similar to yours. Like many people who work with youth, as a college pastor I found myself quickly intrigued by all the new electronic media students were utilizing. Thanks to my college students I started a blog in ’04, followed by Facebook in ’05 and Twitter in ’07.  And you never saw me without my trusted Blackberry or iPhone.
But it was not until this last year that I started to become wary of the changes that I was noticing in myself.  I was distracted and unfocused. I began to feel phantom vibrations in my pocket1, though no cell phone was there. I noticed myself incessantly sending tweets from a Coldplay concert though I was on a date with my wife.
I knew it was getting bad when my 3-year-old daughter would walk around the house imitating me by pretending like she was talking on the phone.  More and more I felt concerned with what was happening “out there,” and not present with what was happening immediately in front of me.  It was a lonely and disheartening recognition of how technology was using me.
I’m now a marriage and family therapist, and one of the turning points for me was when it dawned on me during a therapy session that many of my clients come to therapy because it may be the only time during the week that they have someone else’s undivided attention.  As a therapist I was present with these people day in and day out, so I decided that my family deserved that same treatment and more.  From that point on, I decided to use use technology in such a way that it didn’t come in between my most important relationships.

Helping Others Navigate the Technological Terrain

As a youth pastor, volunteer, or parent of an adolescent, you are going to find yourself in the position of trying to help both kids and parents navigate the world of technology that teenagers are immersed in. My hope is that the following ideas can better provide you with the tools necessary to bring fruitful discussions and changes in your youth ministry, family, and personal life.

The Shovel—Technology Shapes Us

I first saw this analogy employed by technologist and author John Dyer. 2  John stood before the audience with a shovel in his hand, explaining that when we use a shovel, whether for good (i.e. to plant a tree), or for bad (i.e. to hit somebody), the shovel still has a shaping effect.  No technology is neutral.
In the case of the shovel, regardless of how we use it, it is likely to leave us with calluses. The philosopher and communication theorist Marshall McLuhan said that “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.”3  Most of us are largely unaware of the weight of media influence in our lives.  We must begin to start thinking beyond just how we use technology, to how it is actually shaping us.

Action Step #1: Help those involved in your youth ministry understand that any use of technology will shape them in some way.
  • Hold a seminar that is aimed at helping parents, volunteers, and students understand that technology can be employed for both good (homework research; college searches; chatting with friends), and bad (viewing pornography; gossiping; bullying).
  • Demonstrate to them how technology shapes us all. For example, you could have parents think about the number of phone numbers they used to have memorized, compared with today. You could have youth talk about how texting has enabled them always to be connected, without having to be physically present.
  • As an experiment, families could download Rescue Time ( to their computers, and then at the end of each week look at how much time they spent online, and where they spent it. This information can be a catalyst for determining if that’s how each member of the family wants to spend their time, and how they spend their time online may be transforming them.

The Mirror: Technology Reflects Identity

One of the things that I have really begun to notice at the gym the last few years is the amount of time that teenage boys spend looking at themselves in the mirror.  They will periodically flex their biceps or pull up their shirt to get a look at their abs.  In a similar way, social media technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are the mirrors by which many teenagers receive back a reflection of who they believe they are, or how they want to be seen.  This reflecting back aids in the construction of their identity.
As adolescents begin to answer the question of “Who am I?”, they use various online channels as the conduits of identity construction. There are a couple of relevant terms4  for this construction of self, but one of the more compelling terms is that of the “saturated self” presented by psychologist and social construction theorist Kenneth Gergen. 5
Gergen’s theory is that in the formation of relationships, people often use mediating technologies. He explains, “For as new and disparate voices are added to one’s being, committed identity becomes an increasingly arduous achievement.”6  Thus if one lacks an inner core/identity, Gergen believes what one is left with is a “saturated self”, or “multiphrenia”, which is a term he uses to explain what happens when identities are shaped by too many choices of self-expression.  So for example, as a teenager forms relationships, they are often using the technologies available to them such as their cell phones, Facebook, internet chat, etc.  But if they don’t have a strong sense of self already in place, all the technologies that they use eventually saturate them and keep them from developing a coherent identity.

Action Step #2: Help those involved in your youth ministry ground themselves more relationally in face-to-face interactions.
  • For example, you can teach several biblical passages where one’s face-to-face relational interactions bring about a clearer sense of their identity.  For instance, in Genesis 2:23 Adam becomes a differentiated being 7 , setting him apart from his initial creatureliness.  This differentiation is best realized in relationship to another person, Eve.  In I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12, members of the body of Christ construct identity, and have a clearer sense of self because of their relationship to the whole body, something they can’t achieve in isolation.
  • Work on striving for face-to-face relationships with the volunteers, parents and teenagers in your youth ministry.  When possible, meet face-to-face, rather than using email, chat, or even the phone.  In a culture where efficiency is often valued over relationship, you might be the one opportunity they have to be relationally grounded.
  • Help encourage teenagers by reminding them of the various qualities you see in their identity.  For example, a parent could keep a journal about their teenager, and on occasion share the qualities that they notice as having a positive shaping effect on their identity.  Or a youth pastor could take time hand-write a note to a student, encouraging the spiritual growth they are seeing in their lives.  The use of a different technological medium (writing) has a more personal effect than they are used to receiving through the use of much of the social media technology they spend each day using.

The Tray: Technology Needs Boundaries

“My vocation is, at each moment, to make the person in front of me the most important person in my life.”8
As I read those words of a nun, as quoted by the Roman Catholic priest and author Ronald Rolheiser, I came to the realization that I have not always done a good job of being present with other people.  One of the challenges that technology poses is that it makes “what is happening out there” often more important than what is happening right in front of us. For example, texting friends to see what they are up to can quickly become more important than enjoying the meal with the friends who are physically present with you at the time.  But like a tray that has corners and edges, our friendships with others are constructed of relational edges and boundaries that help us know where we begin and end in relationship to one another.

Action Step #3: Help those involved in your youth ministry develop various boundaries around their use of technology.
  • For example, teach the story of creation, highlighting the fact that God created in six days and then rested on the seventh.  This Sabbath rest is a reminder to us that we need to set boundaries in our week, and around our use of technology and other tools we utilize. Doing so also reminds us that we are dependent upon God, and not upon ourselves or the tools that we use.
  • Place a tray or basket where all people present can physically place their cell phones in when entering the youth room.  Setting aside these devices visually demonstrates to yourself and others that you’re wanting to be present with those you are in relationship with.  This is a great practice to institute as a family at home, placing a basket or tray in a prominent place in the house where all members of the family can place their electronic devices. 9)
  • Ask others their perception of your use of technology.  Sometimes we have a distorted sense of how much our use of technology gets in the way of our relationships.  Getting others’ opinions may change how we use technology.
As I reflect back on how my thinking on technology has shifted, I am constantly reminded of something one of my favorite Fuller Seminary professors once said in class.  Dr. Ray Anderson was talking about the importance of being grounded in relationships, reflecting on the fruits of the Spirit as Paul writes in Galatians 5:22-23.  Dr. Anderson commented that he could say that he exhibited those fruits of the Spirit, but what he really needed to do was go home and ask his wife and children if that was true.  They could give us the best indication of whether or not it was true.
In much the same way I have started to realize that the best indicator of whether or not I’m using technology, or it’s using me, is to ask my wife and kids.  Their responses will be a good indication of whether or not I’m really present when I’m with them, or if my use of technology is getting in the way.
I would encourage you to sit down with your kids or the youth you work with, and ask them how you may be better present in their lives.  Ask them if your cell phone, or laptop, or some other technological tool gets in the way of your relationship.  This conversation is a great start to opening the doors to what may be a fruitful interaction in your family life and youth ministry.

Action Points

Here are a few simple ideas that can be implemented immediately in the context of a youth ministry or family:
  • Begin the Conversation: Set aside a time where each member of the family or youth ministry honestly shares some ways they believe the use of technology is shaping them. Then allow others in the family or youth ministry to reflect back what they have heard to the speaker, as well as adding their own additional insight.
  • Set Boundaries: Place a tray or box in the central part of your home or youth ministry, and begin the practice of placing all electronic devices there upon arriving.  Talk together about how this practice changes your experience of being with one another.
  • Technological Fast: Teach on the theological idea of Sabbath and solitude, drawing from the creation story in Genesis, and Jesus withdrawing to solitude in his ministry.  Use these teachings as catalysts to practice a technological fast in your youth ministry or home.  The fast can be of any length, but should be followed up by further discussion of implementing a weekly one day fast.
  1. Angela Haupt, Good Vibrations? Bad?  None at All? (USA Today, 2007). []
  2. John Dyer, Using Technology, Without It Using You (Dallas: Echo Conference,  2009), []
  3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  (Boston: The MIT Press, 1994), 17-18. []
  4. Andrew F. Wood & Matthew J. Smith, Online Communication: Linking Technology, Identity, and Culture.  (London: Routledge, 2004). []
  5. Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dillemas of Identity in Contemporary Life. (New York: Basic Books, 1992). []
  6. Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dillemas of Identity in Contemporary Life. (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 73. []
  7. Ray Anderson, Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology. (Pasadena: Fuller Seminary Press, 1991), 37. []
  8. Ronald Rolheiser, The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home in Times of Loneliness.  (Denville: Doubleday, 2004), 23. []
  9. For more instruction on implementing boundaries for your electronic devices at home: Rhett Smith, Your Marriage and Facebook: Just Don’t Be an “Idiot” (2010), (; John Dyer, Why You Need a Technology Basket at Home. (2010), ( []

Monday, October 22, 2012

Common Scams Aimed at Your Kids

Janet Fowler, provided by Investopedia
October 11, 2012

The inexperienced and trusting nature of young people is often what causes them to fall victim to scam artists. Some scam artists know how to identify and take advantage of teens and their need to fit in. Also, because teens are often so involved in new technology and web-based interactions, it's no surprise that many scammers have found the Internet to be the optimal environment for preying on teens.

Inexpensive Luxury Goods Have you ever seen ads online for cheap iPhones, electronic gadgets, designer clothes, handbags and other luxury goods being sold at just a fraction of the retail price? Many of these advertisements are simply scams aimed at unsuspecting individuals who are looking for a good deal. However, these scams don't only exist online. Teens can be approached with too-good-to-be-true offers just about anywhere. Sadly, in many cases, these cheap goods don't even exist. After these teens hand over their money to the scam artist, they never receive the promised merchandise. Sadly, these teens are often so embarrassed about being duped that they won't tell their parents or the authorities, so many of these scams are unreported.

Information Farming The naivety of youth often makes it easier for would-be identity thieves to phish for information, as adolescents don't even realize that they're handing over personal information that can be used for identity theft. Many of these scams operate online, making use of emails or pop-up windows that ask for verification of account information, social security numbers, credit card information or any other kind of personal data. Other versions of this scam include false employment opportunities that require the applicant to give personal information, as well as false credit card application forms.

Contests Some scammers run contests where the odds of winning are virtually nil and some of them don't even hold contests. These scams may also focus on gathering personal information as a means of identity theft. Similar scams exist in the form of literature or art competitions where creative young people can submit their work in the hopes of winning a prize or have their work published. Once the work is published, the teen is then asked to pay a sum of money for the published book or required to send money with the opportunity to win an even larger prize.

False Investments and Money Transfers Investment and money transfer scams operate in many different ways. Although these scams don't necessarily target teens, they may be more likely to fall victim to them. The victim will generally receive an email from a foreign businessperson who claims to need help moving funds abroad. Perhaps the victim will get an offer to invest in a great opportunity with huge payouts (often known as a Ponzi scheme). Although many of these scams operate in the online world, they exist in other forms as well.

Scholarships and Grants Many young people are looking toward their futures and this may cause them to fall victim to scams surrounding false scholarships or grants. Many of these offers are attempts to steal personal information from students who may be looking for financial aid, though many scholarship scams focus on charging money for information on potential scholarships that may or may not actually exist.

Another scam targets young college students who have accrued debt from legitimate student loans. These older teens may be approached by people who offer to help eliminate student debt in exchange for a small fee. Once the fee is paid, the fraudster disappears without eliminating the student's debt.

Online Auctions Auction scams have been found to target unsuspecting teens in various ways. One scam involves an auction for an item that doesn't exist or never arrives. The buyer has paid for merchandise that he or she never receives. Alternatively, when an unsuspecting teen has put one of his or her items up for auction, a buyer suggests that the check is on its way, but urges the teen to send the item anyway. The funds never arrive and the teen has now given away his or her valuables for nothing.

Cell Phone Companies Many teens carry around their cell phones wherever they go, creating a vehicle for potential fraud. Many teens want to personalize their gadgetry with new ringtones and wallpaper images. Some companies target teens for these "free" services that send new ringtones and images on a regular basis. However, what they don't advertise is that this service comes with a hefty fee that'll be added to the phone bill each month. Many of these fees appear on the phone bill with ambiguous terms that aren't easily understood by consumers, making it difficult for parents to realize what they're paying for.

The Bottom Line It's important for parents to teach their children that if anything looks too good to be true, it probably is. If you're a parent, take the time to discuss the types of information that scammers are looking for, and make your children aware of any potential scams. Even if you need to repeat yourself, remember that it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Copyright (c) 2012 Investopedia US. All rights reserved. is a division of ValueClick, Inc.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

How to Set Screen Rules That Stick

Easy tips for limiting kids’ computer, TV, game, and movie time.

In many homes, getting kids to turn off their cell phones, shut down the video games, or log off of Facebook can incite a revolt. And if your kids say they need to be online for schoolwork, you may not know when the research stops and idle activity begins.
It may seem counterintuitive, but getting involved with your kids' media is the first step to cutting the cord. Showing an interest, knowing what they're doing -- even playing along with them -- makes it easier to know how much is too much.
Every family will have different amounts of time that they think is "enough." What's important is giving it some thought, creating age-appropriate limits (with built-in flexibility for special circumstances), making media choices you're comfortable with, and modeling responsible screen limits for your kids.
Preschoolers. There are lots of great TV shows, apps, games, and websites geared for this age. But too much time spent in front of a screen interferes with the activities that are essential for growing brains and bodies.
  • Go for quality and age-appropriateness. Not everything for preschoolers needs to be a so-called "brain-builder," but there's a difference between mindless and mindful entertainment. Our learning ratings can steer you toward titles that help preschoolers work on developmental skills like sharing, cooperation, and emotional intelligence.
  • Sit with them, and enjoy the discovery process. There will always be moments when you need to rely on the TV or an app to distract your preschooler while you get something done. But as much as you can, enjoy media together. Little hands and developing brains really benefit from your company (and guidance!).
  • Begin setting limits when kids are little. Habits get ingrained early, so make sure you establish clear screen-time rules when your kids are young. For games, apps, and websites, you may need to set a timer. For TV, just say "one show."
Elementary and Middle Schoolers. At this age, kids love TV shows, games, movies, and online videos. They begin to explore more and hear about new shows and games from friends. Because they can access these things by themselves, it's crucial to continue to supervise their activities and help them stick to your rules.
  • Start with an endpoint. Use whatever tools you have -- your DVR, Netflix, OnDemand -- to pre-record shows, cue them up, or plan ahead to watch at a specific time. That way, one show won't flow into the other, and you can avoid commercials. If your kids are into YouTube, search for age-appropriate videos, and add them to a playlist to watch later. Because most games don't have built-in endings (and are, in fact, designed to make kids play as long as possible), set a timer or some other cue that says "time to stop."
  • Help them balance their day. Kids this age need guidance from you on a daily plan that includes a little bit of time for everything. And staying involved works: Kids whose parents make an effort to limit media use spend less time with media than their peers do, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study.
  • Practice what you preach. It's tempting to keep reaching for your phone to check email, texts, Facebook, or the news. But your kids will be the first to call you out for not "walking the talk." Plus, they'll pick up habits from you. Model the media behavior that you want your kids to emulate.
High Schoolers. You'll have more success with teens if you explain the reasons why too much screen time is harmful. For example, too much exposure to violent video games raises aggression and lowers empathy. Your kids may actually be able to see evidence of this in their peers who spend too much time playing games. Even Facebook is a habit that some teens wish they could break.
  • Help them make quality choices. You still have a say in what they see, hear, and play. Put in your two cents about the importance of quality shows, games, and movies.
  • Crack down on multitasking. High school kids who've discovered texting, IM, Facebook, and music tend to do them all at once -- especially when they're supposed to be doing mundane tasks like homework. But a University of Michigan study found that humans are terrible multitaskers and that the practice actually reduces the ability to concentrate and focus.
  • Find ways to say "yes." Look for movies they can watch. Find games you're OK with. If your teens ask to see something you don't approve of, help them find alternatives.
Do you enforce any screen-time limits at home? What are your house rules?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

CMD™ Changed Our Family

Good morning, Al!

I have been intending to send you this message for some time, but just never got around to it.

A little background: our daughter (and only child), Anna, is 27. She is married and lives in Austin, Texas. Back when she was in late elementary school I heard you (probably at ACSI) challenge parents to spend money on Christian music for their kids. I accepted the challenge. We already frequently listened to Christian radio in the car, and I played Maranatha Praise at home, but Anna didn't identify that as her music. I told Anna we would buy her all the Christian music she wanted, but that she would have to buy her own secular music. We put no limits on the type of Christian music she could listen to. Thanks to a Christian record club at the time, we avoided going broke buying Christian music for her during those years.

Like mother, like daughter--she mostly listens to Christian music today (with a little of the pop music from her teen years and some of her new secular favorite, country).

A couple of months ago a friend she had made at church a several years ago died unexpectedly.

The next morning she emailed me to tell me she had been listening to Rich Mullins' "Hold Me Jesus" as she mourned the loss of her friend. She thanked me for introducing her to his music and for encouraging her to listen to Christian music AND for buying it for her.

I don't know how often you receive follow-up thank yous this many years later, but I wanted you to know that I believe your challenge changed our family. I certainly would not have bought Anna harmful music and we would have limited her ability to listen to it in our home, which likely would have been a source of strife and tension. But it is doubtful that I would have taken the positive approach of buying as much of the Christian music as Anna wanted.

Thanks, Al.

Chris Luketic

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Background Television At Home May Be Harming US Kids Development

Background Television At Home May Be Harming US Kids Development

By RYAN JASLOW / CBS NEWS/ October 1, 2012, 10:59 AM

Leaving the television on for background noise may be harming the development of many American children, new research suggests.
Previous studies suggest television exposure has been linked to children being less likely to pay attention during playtime, reduced cognitive abilities, and lower-quality interactions between parents and their children.
Despite these negative effects, researchers have been unsure of how big of a problem background television watching is among families. The new study found it's a prevalent problem in American homes.
"Our results indicate that children are exposed to a tremendous amount of background TV," wrote the researchers, led by Matthew Lapierre, a communications researcher at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
For the study, published in the Oct. 1 issue of Pediatrics, researchers surveyed more than 1,450 U.S. families with a child between the ages of eight months and 8 years old. They found children on average were exposed to almost four hours of background television each day.
Children under 24 months were exposed to an average of 5.5 hours of background TV each day, rates that fell as children aged. The oldest children in the study between 6 and 8 years old were exposed to less than half that amount, only 2 hours and 45 minutes per day.
Besides age, other factors contributed to differences in background TV rates.
African American children were exposed to more than 5 hours and 30 minutes of background television each day on average, about 45 percent more than the average child. Asian American children were found to have the least exposure at fewer than 2 hours and 30 minutes of background TV per day.
Children from low-income families were subjected to almost six hours of background television per day while kids whose families were above the poverty threshold were exposed to about 3 hours and 30 minutes.
"This is concerning because past research has shown that children from these demographic groups are typically at risk for other social and cognitive problems," the researchers wrote, including struggles with self-regulation that may lead to higher rates of obesity.
Living in a single-parent home meant an average of more than five hours of daily background television, while living with both parents reduced background TV-time to about 3 hours 30 minutes per day.
Also, as parent education increased, background television exposure at home decreased.
Study co-author Dr. Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, an associate professor of communication research at the University of Amsterdam, told WebMD that noises from TV disrupt a child's development of skills such as problem solving and communication that he or she can gain through play.
The researchers think some parents may leave on the television in children too young to speak to fill the void of silence and provide additional stimulation.
Parents should start by limiting the amount of television they're watching when a child is playing nearby.
"In some ways, parents might just sort of feel like the TV isn't for the kids. They think young kids don't understand it. They're playing, and I'm watching something," Piotrowski told WebMD.
Parents can also simply shut the TV off when no one is watching, turn off the TV at key times like bedtime and during meals and remove the TV from a child's bedroom.
Children in families who left the television on when no one was watching, and children who had TV sets in their bedrooms were exposed to more background TV in the study.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television at all for children younger than 2 years old.
© 2012 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.