Group’s Chief Creative Officer Joani Schultz’s exclusive interview with technology guru Robin Raskin.
Last week, I watched a fifth-grade boy absorbed in our worship music.
Zach. The unofficial ruler of children’s ministry. Little did he know the power he and other fifth-grade boys wield as the unofficial rulers of children’s ministry. (You know what I mean.)
I signaled him to sit beside me. “Hi, Zach. Could I interview you for a minute?”
“Sure.” He grinned at me; somebody had noticed him. (Rare in a day of heads-down device watchers.) Besides Jesus, I wanted to know what Zach cares about.
To my surprise, Zach couldn’t stop talking about technology. Coding. Bringing text to life with a voice. (What?!?) And drumming. He’s researching everything about drumming online because he loves music. His device offers a free ticket to a vast new world.
So how do we as children’s ministry leaders understand the technology that moves faster than kids at our Easter-egg hunts? How does technology actually affect kids and families? How can our ministries provide relevant, divine guidance in a digital age?
I wanted to find out.
If anyone could help us understand what’s happening in the tech world, it’s Robin Raskin. She’s the president and founder of Living in Digital Times with more than 30 years of expertise as an author, editor, events and conference creator, magazine publisher, blogger, TV and radio personality, consultant, former editor of PC Magazine, and watcher of all things techie for education, kids, and families.
Robin. Knows. Her. Stuff.
So I tracked her down at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a massive gathering of tech creators, consumers, and commentators, and I asked her a bunch of questions on behalf of families and people who care about children. (I added my thoughts to you along the way. So just pretend you and I are also having a lively conversation.)
Let’s Talk Technology: An Interview with Robin Raskin
Robin: It’s funny, back 30 years ago when we started writing about families and technology, we talked about balancing “screen time” and “other time.” But with this generation, “screen time” and “other time” is one and the same. The screen is your third wheel in life. It’s there in your pocket. The mobile technology is something different. You’re not going into a room and turning on a computer. You’re whipping out your phone. So we all have to accept that that’s the kind of behavior.
Joani: How does behavior affect what families need to do?
Robin: This reality is part of being a parent in this world now. We all have to have conversations with our kids about texting while you’re walking, or texting while you’re driving or texting in general, and looking for signs of trouble. There’s a lot of trouble we can get into on the Internet. It’s all there waiting for us. Parents need to watch; are your kids closing their doors and not letting you in?
I say to my own kids (now grown-ups), “So what’s new and cool now that I should know about?” They’re so happy to take you on the journey with them as long as you keep having the conversation.
Joani: How cool when kids become our teachers. Asking kids to teach us honors and respects them. Plus, we learn a lot and build stronger relational bonds in families and classrooms. That’s the upside; what’s the downside? So, Robin, what does that sound like when kids are on the Internet and run across questionable stuff?
Robin: You point out questionable things: “I don’t think that’s true.” Or you show them examples you deal with, like “Look—I got this note and they say they’re from the bank. I don’t think they’re really from the bank. What do you think about this?” That’s a teachable moment.
So as you get these emails and crazy texts and things, it’s so great to draw your kids into it. And when your friends and other parents say, “Look at this picture of little Jimmy in the bathtub. Isn’t that cute?” you can have a conversation with your children: “I don’t know if that’s cute. What are you going to think when you’re married and I’m taking out that Facebook photo?”
Joani: Those are great, practical suggestions, Robin. Any more?
Robin: Facebook was never meant for young kids. But Facebook spends a lot of time thinking about how to make it a safer place. YouTube, where most kids spend their time, never had a safe place until they created YouTube Kids. Now it’s quite safe. Kids are both content creators and consumers. So, if your kids are on YouTube a lot, butt your nose in there and say, “What are you watching?” You’ll find it’s usually some ant-building colony video or something. It’s so fabulous that they have this tool that’s introducing them to the world.
Joani: That all sounds so positive, but I had to ask: What are your fears?
Robin: My fears are many. One simple fear is “the haves” and “the have-nots.” Technology is still for a somewhat elite group of users. Until everybody has equal access, that’s a problem.
Also, it’s very easy to get caught up in a world where you think a Facebook friend is a real friend. It’s very easy to get caught up in a world where you’re asked to make a decision—let’s say your college professor asks, “What do you want to major in?” You say, “Hold on a minute. I’m going to text all my friends and ask my mom and dad.” So all of a sudden, you lose your individualism and your ability to make your own decision. There’s a lot of “group share” and “group think” now…That’s great, but when you can’t think as an individual and you’re only a group, sometimes that’s not so great.
The other thing about the Internet is you tend to go where your friends go, where your “likes” go. So if you’re not seeing the whole world…you’re missing knowing the rest of the world. We know that a diverse society is a good society and that different opinions make for better things. And with the Internet, you run the danger of closing that out.
Joani: Isn’t that funny? It’s a paradox because you think you get everything on the Internet, but then maybe you don’t.
Robin: Yeah, it’s like the best of times, the worst of times. It really is a profound discussion.
Joani: What’s something you see coming around the corner?
Robin: If you notice, your kids will live in a world without money. They’ll never use a dollar bill. They’ll use Venmo.
(Venmo is a free digital wallet that lets you make and share payments with friends. Now we both know.)
And they’ll use digital payments and use their phone to swipe. For parents, it’s a really different world. It’s pretty easy to swipe your phone and buy something…and not realize the value of money. So there are a lot of apps to teach parents how to teach their kids about the value of money. On the other hand, you can set your kids’ allowance levels on your phone. You can set rewards on your phone. You can set treats on your phone. So the interesting thing will be that our kids will grow up in a world without money but also with rewards systems.
Joani Whew. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that one. How will we teach the value of money? Switching gears, I continued. You’ve been at this for a long time. What’s a big change you’ve seen?
Robin: Ten to 15 years ago, we’d have been talking about predators on the Internet, porn on the Internet, and bullying. And those are still real problems. But people are overcoming them because, in part, we’re all in this together. Kids are self-reporting bullying activity in their schools. Kids are self-reporting where not to go. Sites are voluntarily blocking themselves from kids’ views. So we’re making progress.
Joani: Before our interview, I heard an expert panel raise concerns about technology and kids. They feared for the lack of ethics and disappearing social skills. What’s your take on that?
Robin: So, yeah. Kids sometimes don’t make eye contact. They’re sometimes really afraid when they break up with each other on their devices. And so, using the screen as a crutch is a problem for all of us. It’s a lot easier to say something to someone when you don’t have to say it in person. So the best thing is to practice saying things in person and to remember to have real conversations.
Joani: Here’s a great opportunity for our ministries. We can provide opportunities for face-to-face conversations. Kids can “practice” conversations and making decisions in a safe environment. We can provide families with “excuses” to come together to talk through discussion starters at home.
Robin: I’ve always been a technology optimist. If you look at the big- gest problems that face our country and our world—having enough to eat; living in safe, pollution-free cities; recycling; saving the planet— technology is going to be part of the solution.
And it’s going to be these kids who are playing around with robots today who are going to be leading this charge. You just see this every day. They’re doing it now. They’re helping with Parkinson’s disease and vision and prenatal care. We reward kids between the ages of 15 and 20 here at the Consumer Electronics Show who’ve built apps that are astounding. Ones that detect early cancer. Ones that go out into villages and detect whether drinking water is safe.
And it’s not just the sciences.
It’s the arts. To make better dancers, make better theater, and tell stories better. So they’ll have jobs we’ve never thought of and never knew existed. They’ll have skills we never knew. So they’re going to have to learn to be flexible and collaborative.
Joani: Our ministries can teach flexibility and work together—what it means to be the body of Christ in action. Robin, what other things will they need to learn?
Robin:Self-discipline. For example, you start your term paper and 17 hours later you realize you’ve gone off on a tangent and you’re surfing the Web about things that don’t matter. I used to tell my own kids, “Don’t start in front of the computer. Start on a piece of paper with an outline that you make.” That way you’re driving the search and the search isn’t driving you.
Joani: You can get sucked in for hours. I know how seductive researching and going off on tangents can be. Don’t you?
Robin: We all do it. It’s just like Candy Land out there. So self-discipline and staying on task are really important. Knowing when to put the device down and make human contact or to pick up the phone and resolve something.
Joani: Churches can become the natural place for kids and families to develop and practice personal and relational skills. At the conclusion of our interview, I showed Robin Buddy Quest (buddyquest.com), the first-ever mobile video game to help kids learn and practice virtues in the real world.
Robin: The best apps now are drawing a parent-kid connection. That’s so fundamentally great!
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