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How to Create a Media-Savvy Family (With Adam Holz)

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The rise of smartphones, tablets, and other technology-driven devices over the last few decades has forced many parents to consider how to best manage this relatively new cultural phenomenon – for both them and their children. There are so many different opinions, and new studies are coming out all of the time, sharing the pros and cons of electronic media. So how do you find a healthy balance?

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Adam Holz, Director at Plugged In and co-author of Becoming a Screen-Savvy Family: How to Navigate a Media-Saturated World-And Why We Should, to discuss how parents can create healthy media habits for themselves and their children.

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Family Policy Matters
Transcript: How to Create a Media-Savvy Family (With Adam Holz)

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Parents and grandparents, ever wish you had some help navigating the ever-changing landscape of culture, entertainment, and technology? Well, there’s a resource for that. Adam Holz is director of Plugged In: Focus On The Family’s Entertainment and Technology Review website that gives families essential tools to understand, navigate, and even impact the culture in which we live. He is one of the co-authors of Plugged Ins’ new book, Becoming a Screen Savvy Family: How To Navigate a Media Saturated World and Why We Should, and he joins us today. Adam Holz, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

ADAM HOLZ: Traci, thanks so much for having me on today, glad to be here.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Lay out the landscape for us. How has our consumption of media changed in recent decades? And what does that mean to all of us?

ADAM HOLZ: Well, I would say we could go back even as far back as the late 60s; we began to see the emergence of entertainment as just an incredibly powerful force shaping our culture. And you fast forward through cables emergence in the 80s, and then the internet. But of course, once we get into this millennium, we see an explosion. And I would say paradigm shift in our entire understanding of how we engage with entertainment. And that, of course, is due to the fact that technology has changed and, just in the last 10 to 15 years, has enabled stuff that literally would have been science fiction as late as the mid-90s. To have a phone in your hand where you can stream anything. I mean, that’s the kind of thing you would have seen in a science fiction movie not that long ago. And so, I think what’s changed today for parents is the fact that trying to get our heads around, how do we shepherd our kids through this? How do we know what to avoid? How do we know when and how to engage? What do we do with social media? I think, at times, it can just feel incredibly overwhelming. And I say that not as an ivory tower guy who has all the answers but is disconnected from reality, but as the father of a 13, 15, and 17-year-old. I mean, we’re right smack in the middle of everything that we’re dealing with here. And I think the temptation at times is to go one way, which is I’m going to control everything. And I’m going to, you know, clamp down so hard, or we go the other way. We’re so overwhelmed that we just throw our hands up and say, well, that’s just the way it is. And I think that what we want to advocate is a very intentional middle path that equips and encourages parents to stay engaged to not sweat it if it’s not perfect, but also to understand how important these factors are as they’re shaping your kids today.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Wow. So you’re trying to strike a balance, which is not necessarily something that we’re very good at as Americans these days. So I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. Tell us, first of all, why do you think we’re so attracted? Not just kids, but all of us right to pop culture, media and technology. What is it about that?

ADAM HOLZ: Oh boy, I mean, we could talk for an hour just about that question. I think that we live in a culture that idealizes youth; it idealizes affluence and beauty. And to some extent, there’s nothing necessarily problematic about those things. But you take a show, like Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and just the cultural fixation with this family being rich and beautiful and pretty messed up, right? We have this strange desire to tap into that world of celebrity. Again, we can go back as far as the 1920s or 1930s, and celebrity culture is not a new thing. But I think that what we see now is a kind of access to it that we never had before. So you pair that sort of desire to experience those things with, I think that our engagement with entertainment, in general, is often about two things that have a biblical analog. We engage with stories that we can relate to that are realistic, that touch us where we live, or we want to relate to stories that are transcendent, that invite us into a bigger story. So that’s in the mix. And now, you pair it with smartphone technology, and we’ll talk about this a little bit more. But when we engage with something that we like, we get a small hit of a brain chemical; they’re called neurotransmitters called dopamine, and dopamine is the brain’s pleasure chemical, and our brain likes it. And so we get just a little hit and a little hit and a little hit. But we’re now in dopamine overload. So every time you pick up your phone, your brain says, ‘Oh, goody, there’s going to be something good.’ And the dopamine hit actually comes in anticipation of what’s coming, that there’s an expectation that I’m going to be satisfied. And in some ways, maybe we are. Maybe we watch a short video on Tiktok, or maybe we look at a story about our favorite sports team. Whatever you do online, your brain looks forward to that. But I liken it to the old experiments where we would see rats in cages, and they can eat as many little pellets as they wanted. And sometimes, they would gorge themselves to death because they just kept doing it, right? And so we can actually become sort of compulsive and even addicted to those dopamine hits. And actually, dopamine is the chemical that’s in play whenever we talk about addiction. So it’s all of these stories and images that we are drawn to, and then we have sort of an infinite supply of them. And so if we’re not being careful, we can end up in really compulsive patterns.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right, and I think most adults if they’re honest, will see that in their own lives and the danger of that. But I think the evidence is that it’s even more of a problem for young people. So talk about that. Is there a correlation between the rising depression rates among our young people and what’s going on with all of this technology?

ADAM HOLZ: Yeah, there absolutely is. In 2012, we reached a cultural inflection point of 50% smartphone saturation in the United States, and the teen numbers lag a little bit behind that. But that was essentially true for teens as well. And when you pair especially smartphone technology with social media, we’re beginning to have a pretty good sense that the correlations are often bad. Jean Twenge is a researcher at San Diego State University. And she was one of the first to sound the alarm on rising rates of mental illness in kids. So anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation. And sociologists will tell you that typically, as you look at trends, maybe you see a two or 3% SPIKE one year, maybe something drops another year. You might see an overall trend over the course of a decade that is significant. But in 2012, the rates of mental illness among young people among teens and tweens, they went straight up, they went through the roof, and sociologists have spent the better part of the last decade really trying to say, what is it that happened in 2012? And what happened was social media reached that tipping point. And so, increasingly, we have had scientists really looking into this. And there are a number of factors that seem to be correlated with these mental health outcomes. Now, if you know anything about science, it’s very difficult to prove causation. But you can show correlation. And so the first issue is one of comparison, right? Teenagers, especially, are creatures of comparison. They want to fit in. And so there’s this constant comparison going on. Well, I mean, what is social media, if not the biggest amplifier in the world, to compare your life to somebody else’s right? And so even as adults, I mean, I can get on Facebook and see that I had friends that went to Hawaii on vacation, and I’d be like, well, my life stinks; I want to go to Hawaii, right? And the reality is we typically don’t put our worst self on social media; we put the best version of ourselves. And that can even mean manipulated images, we want to make our life look good. And so teenagers especially can look at that and say, man, my life doesn’t measure up. Then there’s, you know, fear of missing out, if you see that your friends are doing something that you weren’t invited to, that can have a negative effect, and it can make you feel ironically, and paradoxically, isolated, even though social media is supposed to connect us. And then we just have a couple of other factors, the fact that kids are staying up late on phones, it’s messing with their sleep, it’s typically a sedentary activity, and those things contribute as well. And then, going back to the dopamine thing, when we put something online, we want feedback, right? And even as adults, you want people to click the like button, and we can all say, oh, we don’t really care, but we do. And if somebody says something critical, that comment can really resonate well for teens; if they spend a lot of time looking for affirmation and they don’t get it, that can be very damaging to their self-esteem. So there’s just lots of ways that social media contributes to making teens feel like they’re isolated, like they’re alone, like they don’t measure up and it’s just this constant diet of it. And so that’s where researchers are at in terms of thinking; this is the correlation, and it really involves social media.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, well, you promised us balance. You’re gonna show us how to balance all of this because now we’re scared. So, talk to us about how we can either monitor or what we need to do to help create that balance not only in our teen’s lives but also maybe in our own lives.

ADAM HOLZ: Well, I think that’s a great place to start, Traci, is that it’s easy to characterize this as a kid’s issue. But the research shows that most parents are getting as much or more screen time a day than their kids are. Depending on which study you look at, and there are lots of them, the ranges are from four to eight hours of screen time a day outside of work and school. So when it comes down to it, we can almost ask the question, how much are we not on screens, because that number is probably going to be smaller than the amount of time we spent on screens. So, I think in our homes, parents set the tone, and whatever you’re doing with your technology and your phones, almost by default, your kids are going to do exactly the same thing. And if we get on their case for being on screens too much, before we do that, we need to take a look at ourselves. And so I think what we want to do is create a family culture where we’re putting boundaries in place for ourselves and for our teens on when, where, and what. So, when are we using screens? Are we using them just constantly, or are the time boundaries on them? What are we looking at? Is it wrong to look at a cute Corgi video on Instagram? No, I love Corgi dogs as much as anybody. And frankly, sometimes I think short-form videos especially give us a laugh, right? There’s so much bad news. And I think that’s one of the draws. But how often do we get on our social media feed and spend two minutes there almost never? It’s 20, 30, 40, you know, you can look up an hour later. And you’ve literally just been scrolling through video after video because that dopamine thing, right? It’s hard to put our phones down. So when are we doing it? What are we watching? And obviously, there are content issues there in terms of explicit things, too, that we have to navigate. And then where are we doing it? If our kids are in their bedrooms with their doors closed and they have their devices, we actually have no idea what they’re engaging with. And that should be self evidently potentially dangerous on lots of levels. And so, as parents, what our responsibility is is to create boundaries in terms of when, where, and what, and then we navigate those boundaries, right? And the goal here is not perfection. The goal here is saying what does it look like to engage with life in a fulfilling way. And to some extent, there may be great things that we need to do on our phones. But we don’t believe that that’s ultimately going to fill us up. And so with my kids, as they’ve gotten older, instead of just saying we need to spend less time on our phones, I’ve tried to pitch it in my wife has tried to pitch it in terms of how are we spending our time, right? What can we do that is really redemptive and in line with what God’s called us to do individually and as a family? And even the difference between watching a movie together intentionally versus everybody’s on their devices is huge. And so what we really talk about in our book, Traci, is intentional engagement. It’s not that we never watch a movie or that we’re never on social media, but that we’re not doing it as sort of this passive default toward consumption on screens. But we’re interacting intentionally in engaging purposefully and trying to help our kids understand how to do that as well.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, so we’ve got about a minute. Would you like to take that minute to give us a little bit more of an idea for people that are listening, and they really want more information? What are some things that they’re going to find in your book?

ADAM HOLZ: Yeah, you know, we’re gonna give you some of the back information about how these things, how entertainment and screens affect us. But we also want to give you practical nuts and bolts information and really a roadmap for how you can make real and lasting changes in your life and why, ultimately, that engagement with your kids is what matters the most. You’re not going to get it perfect, but if you’re engaged, I think that that helps you have the opportunity to guide their choices in all of these areas.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Adam Holz, co-author of Becoming a Screen Savvy Family: How To Navigate a Media Saturated World and Why We Should, what are some other ways that people who are listening can follow your good work?

ADAM HOLZ: You can find us at, and we review movies, music, TV, video games, YouTube channels, technology, and that sort of thing. We are in the ministry of Focus on the Family, so you can go to for more bigger picture parenting sort of things. At, you’ll see an icon for our store, and you can order the book there. And we also have a podcast. ThePluggedInShow one word, is where you can find us, and we have conversations like this about everything related to entertainment technology every week.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Adam Holz, director of Plugged In, thank you so much for joining us today on Family Policy Matters.

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