Chris McKenna is a former youth pastor and a consultant and founder of an organization called Protect Young Eyes, who makes it their mission to show families, schools, and churches how to create safer digital spaces. And he joins us today on The Teacher’s Lounge to help us understand some of the challenges facing students and adults in the technology landscape today. You can read the shortened transcript of our interview with Chris below, or listen to the full podcast here.

Michael Arnold: Tell us how you got into this whole area of helping parents and children protect themselves from the dangers of the internet.

Chris McKenna: Sure. It’s like most things on earth. There are ways to use it for the glory of God and to benefit humanity and ways that it can go really wrong. I don’t want that to only be the focus of when we talk about the internet, but we do have to talk about the realities because it was not designed with young people in mind. It was not designed with family values.

My progression into where we are today is something I laugh at from time to time. I’m a CPA by degree, double major in Accounting and Spanish from Western Michigan, and worked in corporate America for 12 years. I worked as a risk consultant for Ernst and Young, traveled the world, helped large publicly traded companies avoid the problems of Enron and WorldCom and other places by mitigating financial reporting risk.

And that’s what I did. I loved that. It was a great job, but God called me into working with students. And so I left that in 2009, a full time junior high ministry role with a large church here in Grand Rapids, because working with junior high kids is so much like being a CPA. It’s like identical.

Michael Arnold: Yeah, in so many ways.

Chris McKenna: I used to joke because in my student ministry, I definitely needed more spreadsheets and organization than the typical youth pastor. And that’s what I brought to it. I can tell you that.

Michael Arnold: Yeah, you can create the spreadsheets, but that doesn’t mean the students are going to follow them, right?

Chris McKenna: That’s right. That’s right. I left that role seven years ago and I still get messages from people at church that some of my spreadsheets are still being used!

That was from 2009 to 2016. And so if we think about the history of the internet, that is exactly the timeframe when we put internet in the pockets of children. And that terrified me. I was exposed to pornography as a young boy, and that led to a compulsive use of pornography as a young adult that almost wrecked me.

And so having come out of that, and then watching us put the exact same access in the pockets of children terrified me. So I created a closed Facebook group for my families at Cornerstone where I was on staff back in 2014 and started having some internal conversations. Then the community picked up on it. A news story took place and a lot of people started coming to us asking for assistance. And so that led to the launching of ProtectYoungEyes.com in 2015. And now eight years later, I’ve spoken in front of the U.S. Senate. We’ll be traveling to the World Economic Forum in January to speak on these topics.

And I’ve just had a real blessing of so many opportunities to speak to hundreds and hundreds of schools and principals and groups of students about these issues. And it’s not only through the lens of fear, which I think that’s what’s often wrong with our approach to technology. We should move quickly to a position of empowerment and education, preparing our children for digital spaces, whether it’s in the classroom or the home. That is truly necessary because it’s not going away and we must prepare them and not bubble wrap them from these digital spaces.

Michael Arnold: Absolutely. So I don’t think any one of us is surprised that putting devices in our kids’ pockets, giving them unfettered access to the worldwide web, can open the door to a lot of problems. And I get your point about not coming from a place of fear. But could you paint for us the picture of just the extent of those problems? It’s not just pornography. I know that’s a big one, but what are some of the other dangers of having underdeveloped minds with unfettered access to the internet day in and day out?

Dangers

Chris McKenna: We have to step back and understand that many of the digital spaces, including the educational technology spaces where we put children, were not designed with children’s best interests in mind. They almost always have a profit motive that causes certain decisions to be made in features to happen a certain way that almost always leads the development process. And so we’ll get into this in a little bit, but I think that should shape the way that we use technology in the classroom. But I also think that it causes and should demand that parents be very intentional and educated about the digital places where they’re placing children.

It comes from a position where there’s failure happening at multiple levels. And this will indirectly answer your question, but I think it’s important to ground it here. There are multiple layers of responsibility, particularly as it pertains to children. We as a society have a significant duty of care when it comes to protecting children from certain experiences, right?

Development experts and those who work in psychology and therapy with families would tell you that the human brain is intended to learn in a certain progression. There’s a sequence of learning that takes place based on when we are ready developmentally, when we’re ready neurologically, emotionally, socially, relationally, spiritually, to handle certain messages.

There have been failures at multiple levels, failures at the corporate level, because there is no accountability. And that comes from a lack of laws that actually punish companies for creating destructive technologies that go back to 1996. We could have a whole conversation about the Telecommunications Decency Act, and now we are living in the wake of this law and the destruction that was caused in the lives of children from a law that was created 27 years ago. We have failures at the policy level where no one is willing to have the guts to stand up to big tech, both at the federal and very few at the state level. We have not enough schools who are not just teaching technology education in a technology class. We too often see technology education as something that happens vertically in one curriculum area, instead of horizontally across all curriculum and subject matters. We have failures of parents who are making choices that they’re uninformed about, who don’t understand that the brain isn’t ready.

And so all of these failures are leading to a whole generation of young people who are receiving too much information too soon. It’s simply too much, right? Twelve-year-olds today are the seventeen-year-olds from twenty years ago in terms of the information that they know. Technology has accelerated maturity downward so that young people know too much too soon. And it’s actually having the inverse effect upward where older teens and young adults who are addicted to certain technologies, addicted to scrolling, addicted to gaming, addicted to pornography, are failing to engage in the world in a healthy way, are failing to engage in relationships. They’re not getting married. They’re not having jobs. You talk to any college professor who has been a professor for any amount of time, and they will tell you the change.

You want to know what’s wrong with technology? Talk to teachers. That’s why I love talking to teachers when I go to conferences, because we as parents see one version of what technology’s impact is on our child. But until you put 25 of those versions in the same classroom, be it at the kindergarten, the sixth grade, or the sophomore in college level, then you start to see the trend of what is happening in the lives of young people today. Teachers and professors provide one of the most accurate representations of what is happening to our children today, because they see it at that macro sort of group level, and then you’re just blown away at what has happened.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. So we get overstimulation. That’s part of the technology tools that students have in their hands. We have the term iPad Parents, parents who give their kids iPads to keep them busy in the store, at the restaurant, or whatever. But then we have, at the opposite extreme, failure to launch from these young adults into a career, into marriage, or into families because of their addiction, as you described, to technology. And so there are a lot of dangers out there. And I agree with your point that teachers see this on a daily basis.

We actually just posted one of your blogs at curriculumtrak.com/blog about your advice to schools that they’d be cell phone free or smartphone free in the classroom. Would you unpack that a little bit? But what’s your reason for advising schools to consider being smartphone free in the classroom?

Smartphone Free In the Classroom

Chris McKenna: In Florida, it’s actually statewide that schools have been asked to remove personal electronic devices from the school day. And this stokes all kinds of responses from parents on both sides of the spectrum here. I believe that there is nothing but detriment when it comes to attention, focus, and the overall innocence of our children, when you allow them to have personal electronic devices during the day. Show me a study that tells me that my son or daughter will perform better and have a better educational and relational experience during the school day because children have access to personal devices with access to social media, with access to anything during the day. You won’t find one, right?

The studies point in the other direction. A Common Sense Media study showed that 97 percent of teenagers access a personal electronic device during the day at some point at school. The median time was 43 minutes they spend, ranging from a very low number to hours. But 43 minutes was the average amount of time that they spend on their devices during the day.

How is that best for children? Now the response from parents is sometimes, Well, I want to get a hold of my kid. I am telling you, moms and dads, that’s your problem. That’s not the school’s problem. I’m going to be really blunt and say, Get over it. You don’t need to contact your child during the day. You don’t need to; they’re fine.
Other parents will push back and say it’s a school safety thing. I want my kids to get a hold of me if there’s a problem. Again, that is fear that is causing a misguided solution to the problem. There is nothing that tells me that a student is safer in the midst of a school crisis or an active shooter situation because of the presence of a device with them.

In fact, it actually does the opposite. I want them to focus on instruction. I don’t want their notifications to give away where they are. I don’t want them distracted from the one adult who is trying to save their life in that situation. I don’t want a hundred kids texting 50 different families with 49 different versions of what’s going on, creating misinformation that then the principal is trying to mop up for weeks after the incident.

So, phone-free all the way. And I think that we are going to get there eventually. But we actually need parents to be the ones to get out of the way so that we can do what’s best for their children. We can do what’s best for their education. And, again, just ask the teachers. The teachers should not be the ones who carry the burden of deciding when phones are and are not allowed. They should not be the ones that have to have a box or a shoe holder or something at the front of the room. That is not their responsibility. This is something that should be a policy level decision top-down from leadership that teachers just benefit from. They’re the beneficiaries of a distraction free classroom that knows how to interact with the teacher and with each other.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. Well, from the teacher’s perspective, maybe we use it to ramp up engagement or gamification within the classroom or whatever. Let’s just try to mine it for any kind of good that it might have.

As you say, there are no studies to support that. But what we are hearing out of Florida and other districts who have tried no smartphones in the classroom or at the school is increased attendance, increased engagement, increased social skills because students are forced to talk to one another at lunch rather than be on their devices.
And so there are benefits to stepping away in addition to the increased safety that students now have because they’re not exposed to some of the bullying and some of the other things that happen online. And so it’s an interesting paradigm.

Benefits

Chris McKenna: It is. Are there benefits from students using technology in the classroom in some of those ways that you described? Yes, but let me go back to my background. So for the last six years of my career, I worked with some of the largest companies out there to help them mitigate risk, not eliminate.

Whether professionally or personally, whether you’re a parent, you can’t eliminate all risk in the situations you’re in, nor would I want us to eliminate all risk in the lives of our children, lest they become unresilient adults who don’t know how to handle the difficulties of the world, right? In this world, you will have trouble. We know this, and we need our kids to know how to deal with some of that. But until the benefits outweigh the risks, we should not experiment on our children. And I just believe firmly that right now the risk balance is strongly in the direction that the harms outweigh the benefits. Let’s get to a spot where most children don’t have personal electronic devices until high school.

They’ve been taught how to work them, they’ve been taught how to navigate them, they’ve been educated. Their families are doing more during the seventeen hours that the school doesn’t control to form their kids in this way so that when kids show up at school, they know how to deal with technology. And again, it’s not solely up to the teacher to teach kids how to use tech that is just totally undone at 3:01 every day.

So yes, there are benefits, but until we’re in a spot where all of the layers are in place– where policies are in place to increase accountability, where schools and families are all doing their job–until we’re there, let’s not hand the keys of Ferraris to eight-year-olds when they’re not ready to drive. It’s just simply, I think, an irresponsible decision.

Michael Arnold: I think a lot of teachers would agree with you because, as you said, they’re living in this day-to-day and the burden to try to manage this is overwhelming. And so when technology is used or when parents are considering the use of technology, you promote what you call the Five Layers of Digital Protection. Explain to us what that is and how we can get more information about that.

Five Layers

Chris McKenna: We cover this in great detail when we are invited by a school to come and speak to their families, which we do a hundred times every year. I’m a framework guy. It’s that left brain, spreadsheet, CPA side of me. I can’t help it. But we have five values that we teach families around creating a tech ready home.
But then within that we have five different layers of protection, which is one of the values, Preventing Harm. And within that, we have five layers of protection that are important in multiple physical spaces, right?

I think schools would find these as beneficial as homes do. For example, think of it like a pyramid that has five layers in it from the widest to the thinnest up at the top of the pyramid. Okay, we have the relational layer of protection. We have the wifi network layer of protection. We have the device layer of protection, the location layer of protection, and then the app layer of protection. And these are layers that we wrap around our children, right? We make sure they know that whether you’re a teacher or a parent, that children can bring their technology concerns to you, that they can land safely and softly with you. When we’re in front of educators doing PD sessions, I have them all write down what they would say to a child if a child came to them with something concerning on a screen, or they saw pornography on a school-issued device, right? Our responses in that moment, whether we say anything or not, are critical because kids need to know from a parent and a teacher instantly, relationally, Am I going to be okay? And are you still okay with me?

Otherwise, they won’t tell us when harm occurs, right? So that’s the relational layer. Then we keep our networks under control. And I’ll stop there. You get the idea, right? Schools have enterprise wide firewalls. Homes have routers that are in place that protect Wi-Fi devices like Chromebooks and gaming devices and smart TVs and the like.

I know kids have data plans, but that’s where the device level software like Bark and Covenant Eyes comes into play, but you can see why the layers are necessary because devices live in different layers. Devices live in different physical spaces. So these layers are necessary to protect our kiddos. Those are the ways in which we talk about layers of protection to try to make it as tangible as possible.

And if I could just touch on why this is important at schools in a different way. It’s not just important, Michael, to have a firewall in place at a school, it is critically important that the logs that are being generated by the activity on the school network are being monitored constantly. If there is a child who on a school-issued device is banging around against certain sites that are blocked in some way, what are the chances that child will get home and find a digital doorway that doesn’t block them and they then are harmed when they get home? This is the sort of partnership that I believe is critical.

We talk about building bridges that protect young eyes between school and home, because what schools deal with every day is the dance between the seven and the seventeen, the seven hours that they control and the seventeen that they don’t. And there’s this handoff that goes on every morning that started at 3:01 the previous day where they’re receiving seventeen hours of either goodness or problems that they have to deal with.
And we want this partnership, right? Wouldn’t it be beautiful if more schools had that kind of communication pattern in place where based on activity they’re noticing in a child on school-issued devices, they’re informing parents? So then those parents can prevent harm, or have conversations with that child while they’re at home, or make sure that their router is protecting in the same way.

Michael Arnold: And that’s really valuable because I’m a technology guy, I know how to unplug my router and plug it back in. I know there are features on the router that I haven’t really even explored as far as how to control each of the devices connected to our home internet, and it’s overwhelming to even think about how do we start digging through this?

And yet you mentioned the seventeen hours that the students have at home where they have potentially unfettered access to who knows what. That’s going to find its way back into the school setting. And so school officials and teachers need to be mindful. And that partnership with families can be really powerful.

You also talk about the six practices of schools that are tech ready. How is that different from the five layers?

Six Practices

Chris McKenna: There’s some overlap between the two. So when we talk to families, we want them to be thinking about values that are important in their family. And one of those values then has a value of protection and that protection is those five layers. That’s how those two fit together. But then in schools, there is evidence of activities at schools. Actually, there are six of them that we’ve observed that typically signal that a school is tech ready.

So to list those off, number one is informed parents. Number two, they have clear tech policies. Number three, they have strong tech systems. That’s the hardware and software in place. Number four, they have confident staff. Five, they have prepared students. And number six, they are careful with educational technology. And these are the six outcomes that we look for. In fact, we have a full certification process. I was just working with a school on this last night out in California, a certification process where they provide evidence of activities in each of these six standards or outcomes. (I typically stay away from the word standard because then that translates into accreditation and that stirs up PTSD in my school leaders and I don’t want that to be the sentiment that is attached to us.)

And we have a self assessment that they fill out looking for evidences of these, and then we work with them to remediate some of the gaps. And at the end of that, if we’re satisfied, then they can put a badge on their website which says they are a tech ready school and parents who hover over that, I think, have confidence that their school is doing certain things intentionally, prospective parents who might hover over that comparing different choices in private education would go, Wow, this is a place that’s going to educate my kids, going to educate me. They’ve got systems in place.

We have five to eight pilot schools that are working through that certification process right now, but it’s based on those six outcomes that we’ve observed over the past eight years.

Michael Arnold: There are expectations on the side of parents that faith-based schools have to try to meet. And so trying to find the right balance can be very difficult. Some parents want technology free schools. Others want high tech schools, technology all the time. So how do we find the right balance? And so a certification process could be very powerful, like what you just described, where if we’re using technology and we have to, in some way, shape or form, we know how to use it in a safe way.

Chris McKenna: Yeah, definitely. Often schools have many of these evidences or these activities that I’ve described that are underneath these six outcomes. Many times schools have quite a few of them in place, but they’re just not organized in a cohesive way, or they’re just not polished off like policies are a great example, right? Helping them just think through a little more broadly, some of these protections where they may be 80 percent of the way there, but I think that last 20 percent can really set certain schools apart.

Michael Arnold: So, you stepped out of the CPA world into the youth ministry world, and then you stepped into this business or ministry called Protect Young Eyes. Tell us about that a little bit more and some of the services you offer. You’ve mentioned professional development and the certification program and some of the resources that you provide, but in a nutshell, how would you describe this organization that you’re leading?

Protect Young Eyes

Chris McKenna: At the time of this conversation that we’re having right now, Michael, I am just two months into being full time at Protect Young Eyes. After I left ministry in 2016, I actually went to work for Covenant Eyes as a part of their marketing department. This is software that I’ve used for years. It’s what I used to break free from pornography years ago. It’s a fabulous organization when it comes to online accountability. And Protect Young Eyes was just what you call a side hustle. It’s something I did on nights and weekends, but I’ve just recently felt very strongly that the Lord was saying, Nope. Now’s the time. It’s somewhat of an Esther moment– for such a time as this– that I needed to jump into this full time. So that’s now what I’m doing. So I have a team of presenters. We travel the country and now internationally, doing talks for K through 12 schools. We have different age/stage talks for grades K through 2, 3 through 5, 9, through 12.

We do half and full day teacher professional development, principal, superintendent, right? If we’re in a diocese, we’re often brought in to do diocesan wide professional development sessions and days. That’s what I specialize in. And then we have in-class, faith-based digital discipleship–not just digital citizenship, but digital discipleship curriculum– that can be woven into classes.

This is about not just treating each other well, but having a heavenly look at why we treat each other well. That’s important, and that’s called “Be Tech Ready.” That’s at the kind of the business-to-business level, what we do with schools, but then for parents, we have a private community we’ve built called “The Table” where we want individual parents and families to come and ask their questions. That’s where you can get one-on-one help. That’s a subscription based small community that we’ve built.

And then, of course, we have our website and social media spaces where we’re always sharing free available information to people who want it. So when it comes to families, schools and churches, we want to be addressing the needs and taking our responsibility very seriously around helping them focus on what’s important.

There’s so much noise and chaos and fear out there related to technology. There was a perfect example this week with a name drop feature on iPhones that has gone viral because people are scared that their kids might share personal information. And I’m just like, Wait, hold up. I actually did a news story telling parents not to worry. The iPhone that you gave to your child has 99 problems. This is not one of them, right? There are other problems that we need to be focusing on.

We take our job very seriously. As I sometimes use as an illustration, imagine a room that’s full of confetti and each piece of confetti represents the number of things you could be worried about pertaining to technology, depending on who you listen to. Our job every week–we do it every Monday–is to walk into that room and grab the handful that matters. And then we communicate that handful to parents, families, churches, and schools so that you can make decisions based on the humans you love. And we take that job very seriously.

Michael Arnold: I just recently went to your website and signed up for your regular emails that I think will be helpful. And I’d encourage others to do that. So tell us how to find your website and when you get there, you’ll have the option to subscribe.

Chris McKenna: That’s right. So the website is protectyoungeyes.com. And as an individual, right? Many of you are professionals, but also parents and caregivers and grandparents, and you can receive what we call The PYE Download, that Michael’s referring to. As it pertains to schools, we have something called digital drips that schools can send an opt-in form to all of your families, and then anybody in your congregation, your school, your community, every five days can receive a one-minute audio segment that then is also translated in script, both English and Spanish, because I do a morning and afternoon segment at the Christian radio station here in town every day. And we’ve turned those into a drip of emails that schools can offer for free to their families to receive every five days, a little 60 second clip of digital help.

Michael Arnold: What a powerful resource as educators are seeking to partner with parents and families and churches. As an educator, I always struggled with, I can be current in my discipline, I can be on top of my game when it comes to my plans and the content, or I can be an expert in technology, but I can’t do it all. There’s so much and it changes so quickly. I have to figure out how to prioritize my time to stay in front of things. And this technology is hard to stay up with. So partnering with someone like your organization, I think, would be very powerful and helpful.

Could you tell us a little bit more about The Table? I think that’s a really neat idea for people who just want to keep up with this and need some input or need some expert advice. So how does that subscription work and what are some of the kinds of things that you’re trying to solve through that subscription to The Table?

The Table

Chris McKenna: It’s so new that you can’t even get to it on our website yet. You can get to it through Instagram and Facebook where we’ve shared a little bit about it there, but we’re still working on a landing page for it so that parents and others can find it. Think of it as a space where you get one-on-one assistance. You can ask any general questions any time. There’s a spot for direct messages. If you have an emergency, someone from the team will answer those immediately. If you have some kind of crisis that you’re dealing with, we want to be available for those.

Twice a month, we provide what we call Speed Learning. These are thirty-minute mini masterclasses on topics like how to talk about pornography, Chromebook basics, extortion prevention, mental health, and social media, how to reign in YouTube, how to set safety settings for Netflix and Disney Plus, a deep look at roadblocks. Those are thirty-minute webinars that are available to get in and get a ton of information because we know people are busy. These are the sorts of education that are uniquely available inside of this tool, not offered anywhere else.

It is literally two weeks old as of the time of this recording. And so when you’re listening to this, it’ll still be fairly new. And at that time, hopefully you would come to the website and find something that says, Join The Table.

In full transparency, it’s $140 a year to be a part of it, or $40 a quarter, because we believe it does take about three months for a family to truly change the digital culture. So give it three months, learn for three months and apply that. And if you’re not satisfied, I’ll pay you back. But I trust that you will get $40 of value in three months and want to stick around for more, which is why we’ve crafted it the way that we have.

Michael Arnold: It’s amazing. That sounds like such a valuable resource. I’ll be checking into that myself as a father of young kids and as an educator. So thank you for sharing that. Chris, it’s been great to have you with us today. I appreciate your passion and your interest in helping others navigate what can feel like a minefield and yet you come at it with even some hope.

I like to give our guests the last word and just let you step past me and address the people who listen to our podcasts, the educators directly. In two minutes, what would you tell educators who are listening to you right now? How would you encourage them? How would you equip them in the work that they’re doing in the classroom day to day?

Advice and Encouragement

Chris McKenna: I would say, listen to the right voice. The voice of fear when it comes to technology is overwhelming, but that’s the wrong voice. And I want to speak a word of hope and encouragement. Teachers, you are uniquely positioned to speak life and breath and encouragement into the lives of kiddos. And even in this space, to have really open and honest conversations with your kiddos, all the way down to kindergartners And I just think it’ll make a ton of difference. And when you ever get to a spot where you’re not feeling like you’re equipped, come to us with your questions and we’d be happy to help. We want to equip you in this unique position to be in the best spot, to be confident, like we said, to be informed and confident there in front of your classroom when it comes to these tough issues.

Michael Arnold: That’s wonderful. Thanks for joining The Teacher’s Lounge today, Chris.

Chris McKenna: My pleasure, Michael.

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

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