Mr. Jonathan McKee: Screens are hindering that because sometimes we’re so caught up in our own world and now, we’ve got this device that’s even distracting us, you know, even more and that keeps us from empathizing with others.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: Well, that’s Jonathan McKee. And he’s our guest today on Focus on the Family with your host, Jim Daly. And, uh, Jonathan is joined by his daughter Alyssa for our conversation today. Thanks for joining us. I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, screen time is an issue with all parents. If you’ve got a child still living at home, it’s a problem. And I know Jean and I have battled this with our two boys, and, uh, it just is what it is, trying to control screen time and teach your kids the right attitude about that form of entertainment. It’s driven us crazy. And I’m so grateful to be able to provide some ideas and some direction for parents who are probably at their wit’s end trying to keep that under control with their children. So, today we’re going to better understand this topic of screen time with your kids and how to get it under control with two very special guests.
John: And as I said, Jonathan McKee and his daughter, Alyssa, are here. Jonathan is a social researcher and a popular speaker and author. And you can hear him on our Plugged In Show podcast and radio features and then Alyssa works with young people at a college in Southern California and she’s a youth leader at, uh, her local church and, uh, together they’ve written a great book called The Teens Guide to Face to Face Connections in a Screen to Screen World: 40 Tips to Meaningful Communication. And, of course, we have copies of that for you online at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: Jonathan, welcome back to Focus. Good to have you.
Jonathan: Oh, good to be here.
Jim: And I’m really grateful for your participation in the Plugged In effort. You’re on there. I mean, we worked together in that regard – Focus and you…
Jonathan: That’s fun.
Jim: …And, uh, your ministry. So, it’s really great to partner in that way.
Jonathan: Oh, it’s great. What a great team.
Jim: And, Alyssa, it’s so good to meet you.
Miss Alyssa McKee: Yeah. It’s nice to meet you, too.
Jim: Welcome to Focus. Now you’re in your 20s. I’m not going out you totally. But let me just start with that question, because you’re – you know, you’re kind of in it and you’re just coming out of it. What is going on with screens? What – you know, the whole social media thing. I mean, it’s kind of, you know, relatively new and a lot of parents don’t know how to — how to cope with it. Our kids are just buried in them all the time – at the dinner table, at the restaurant. If I could just ask you that out of the gate question, just generally, what’s the addiction to screens all about?
Alyssa: Yeah, well, one thing that’s unique about screens, or I guess not unique, is it’s not just kids, you know.
Jim: (Laughter) Okay, now you’re hurting me. You’re killing me.
Alyssa: It’s not just teens. I mean, I’m going to, you know, out my dad right here. But there have been times when he’s had his phone out at the table (laughter), too, you know.
Jonathan: Yeah. Absolutely.
Alyssa: When we’re out at a restaurant, you know, you want to just do something real quick. Um, and the thing is with screens is, you know, you have access to everything. And I’m learning, you know, in my mid 20s – don’t worry you didn’t out me too much…
Jim: Yeah. I love it.
Alyssa: …Um, you know, I’m using my phone a lot for work. And I see my dad using the phone a lot for work. And screens have become all encompassing, you know.
Jim: It’s true.
Alyssa: They really are starting to become your life. You lose your phone and it’s like, ah! You lose everything, you know.
Jim: Well, it’s gonna be interesting to see, you know, 20 years from now when those parents are raising kids, when the parents grew up that way with screens…
Jim: …If it’s going to be as big of a deal. I think for – you know, for me, I didn’t have screens as a teenager and I didn’t have other things, too. Computers, I think, maybe were just coming into vogue (laughter).
Jim: But the point of that is, um, you know, maybe people will be more accommodating of it. Or maybe the right question, Jonathan, is should they?
Jonathan: Yeah. I think that, you know, obviously digital natives, people who had this, you know, in their pockets their whole life, they realize, you know, what it’s like because, I mean, your life is right there in your back pocket. Like Alyssa was saying, you know, you carry your work with you and you’re like, “Oh, wait, I have to turn this into work real quick. You guys understand, right? Real quick.”
Jonathan: You know, and – and we all kind of are almost a little bit understanding with each other on – on okay, I understand you got a turn in this – you know, this resume if you’re looking for a job or you need to answer that quick text from your boss really quick. And that’s why dads sometimes bring that – bring that phone to the dinner table, because I’m important and, you know, and – and, uh, hey, you guys got to….
Jim: I like that tone of authority.
Jonathan: …You’ve got to understand that if I get a text, I need to return it. And that’s where we need to be able to say, hey, these are great tools. It’s great that we’ve got all this stuff, but there’s times where we just need to put these things in our pockets and pay attention to people in the room.
Jim: Well, in that regard and the whole thing is about being screen wise. So, what’s the definition of being screen wise?
Jonathan: Well, that’s a great question. And, uh – and – and we came up with 40 random realizations about it because it’s hard to really…
Jonathan: Yeah, exactly. It’s hard to really…
John: That’s a long definition.
Jonathan: Yeah. That is a long definition. It’s hard to pinpoint into one thing what it looks like because screens are kind of hijacking areas of our lives. We’ve – we’ve seen it hijacked communication. We’ve seen it hijack self-esteem.
Jonathan: So – so really, it’s kind of…
Jim: Those are big statements.
Jonathan: …Kind of trying to deal with those things on how do we – we’re not against phones. Alyssa and I both love our screens, but to be able to say, hey, how do we, you know, when we’re sitting here at a restaurant, how do we enjoy the people in the room? What’s that look?
Jim: So, do we have to have a rule which kids really love?
John: Yes (laughter).
Jim: I’ve noticed kids love rules. The more rules, the better. And that’s a good rule. I’m teasing, obviously.
Jim: But is it – do you – let me ask you, Alyssa.
Jim: As the one, you know, just coming out of being parented.
Jim: I mean, what does that feel like when mom and dad say, “Okay, hey, put your phone away. Put your phone away. Hey, what are you doing? Put your phone away. What are you doing?” I mean, how did you react to that yourself?
Alyssa: Yeah, well, you know, honestly, I think the best thing you could do as a parent is it’s not just a rule for your kid when you have a screen. It’s a rule for you, too. And, you know, practicing what you preach, you know, if you’re on your phone all the time, but you’re telling your kid to put it away, that doesn’t make sense. And the kid’s not going to be happy about that.
Jim: We have to get you married and into parenting because you got to learn that parents can do the things, they tell their kids not to do.
Alyssa: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Jonathan: There’s an exception…
Jim: Come on. You’re in that transition moment. We’re going to get you there.
Alyssa: Well, I get. it feels that way. And I actually was a nanny for about a year after I graduated. Um, and I realized how easy it is to use a screen to have a break.
Alyssa: Um, and so, I’m not by any means bagging on parents for sometimes even letting their little kids use screens, because, frankly, it’s easier. And sometimes you’re just exhausted and you’re like, okay, go ahead. Watch that show, you know.
Jim: Well, it’s kind of that overreliance on that, you know.
Alyssa: It’s true.
Jim: Just, here, take this iPad for four hours and I’ll get back to you later after I do…
Jim: You can’t do that. You’ve got to be screen wise, which is the whole point again. Alyssa, you identified some apps that really kind of took you in a tough direction. I think even again, from both a young person’s perspective as well as your view of what the parent’s perspective is, speak to that. I mean, I would say for Jean, she was really worried about what the boys – my boys would see.
Jim: So, she had this deep concern about their ability to look at screens. Look at a – have a smartphone. I mean, thankfully, the best advice we received was delay that decision as long as you can…
Jim: …So whenever the boys would say to us, “Hey, all our friends have phones, when do we get our phone?” “Oh, you know what? I’ll take that under consideration” and I’d leave it. And, you know, to their chagrin, I think Trent was 17…
Jim: …When he got his smartphone and Troy was 15 because he’s two years younger and kind of happened at the same time. But the point is, identify that angst that a parent might have. And then what went on with the apps that you and your friends were using and were they helpful or harmful?
Alyssa: Yeah, and it’s hard to say, “Is it a helpful app or is it a harmful app?” Because, you know, there are definitely tendencies for certain apps that you feel like it’s easier to get in trouble with or it’s easier to find yourself sucked in more. Um, and…
Jim: Did that happen to you?
Alyssa: Yeah. Well, one of those apps for me was Instagram and it was hard for me to not compare when I was looking at Instagram. Um, and I found that wasn’t just me. That was a lot of my friends.
Alyssa: Um, and – and my students, students I worked with, some of my girls I was ministering to who also, you know, felt like they had to always be posting these awesome, beautiful pictures on Instagram that showed that they were happy with their friends all the time doing these great things. Um, and when you’re just scrolling through Instagram looking at all that, it’s hard not to compare.
Jim: In fact, you coined this phrase it used in the book, connected disconnect.
Jim: Explain that.
Alyssa: Yeah. So, it’s interesting because Instagram and all these different apps, it feels like you’re connected when you’re using them. Um, you know, you’re talking to people who are your friends, whether they’re far away or close, you feel closer to them. But the funny thing is often, um, you know, especially at my house, you know, with my roommates, I would find that I was there with them and either watching a movie – you know, we’re trying to do something together and, all of a sudden, I would look up and realize that I was the only one in the room. And that’s not actually true, but I would look up and it was like they weren’t there because they weren’t communicating with other people who weren’t there with us…
Alyssa: …On their phones. And I felt like, okay, what about me? I’m actually in the room. And that’s when I kind of started realizing, okay, we’re connected, but we’re disconnected from the people in the room.
Jonathan: And that’s when those times when we start to see that a line has been crossed, when the people outside the room become more important than the people inside the room. And sometimes we’re surrounded by the people that we love the most, but yet we’re like, oh, I’ve got to get this friend request or whatever. And with young people, the pressure is on right now because not only, you know, do they have this device that has all these distractions, but because of social media, a lot of young people, as a matter of fact, 86% of young people want to be…
Jim: I’d say that’s a lot.
Jonathan: …Want to be an influencer. So, eight out of 10 young people want to now, all of a sudden, hey, maybe I can do makeup online or now I can – other people could watch me do video games online and they want to influence in some fashion. Because that what’s happened now is, all of a sudden, followers are very important. I need more followers. Some of that comparisons we’ve seen, how come I don’t have as many followers as she does? As he does? As well as just you start being – you know, you open up to all kinds of dangers because now you let anybody follow you. So, you’ve got to have more followers so you can influence and because of that, it’s this constant battle of, you know, oh, I don’t want ignore this right now because I need to respond to this person because I’ve got to be this, you know, good influencer. And so, also now, you know, you’re having lunch with your – you think you’re having lunch with your kid, but you’re having lunch with a – you know, a superstar, you know. (laughter) What do you do with it?
Jonathan: This is tough.
Jim: Or some – well, and the difficulty there is, yeah, they got their phone right in their face and they occasionally may look at you if you’re saying, “Hey, hey”, you know.
Jim: And that’s part of the issue – that overindulgence.
Jim: You have – or had – a dog that taught you a great lesson. Now there’s dog lovers and cat lovers, so you must be a dog lover. So, what did this pet dog teach your family?
Jonathan: Well, it was interesting because his name was Jethro and he was this big Bernese mountain dog. And, uh, I wouldn’t say he was the most intelligent animal (laughter). Was he, Alyssa?
Alyssa: No (laughter).
Jonathan: Not at all.
Jonathan: Um, but he was like 105 pounds of just pure love. And the one thing about this dog is my daughter, um, Ashley, who was really young at the time. My gosh, was she 10? I don’t even know. And, um, she just loved this dog and his dog was just like such a friend to her. And it’s not like she didn’t have friends. She had lots of friends school. But she came home, and this dog was a friend. And this dog had the special sense where it was able to just tell when you were sad, and you needed love.
Jonathan: And if Ashley was having a rough day or whatever, Jethro would get up from his favorite spot and he’d wander over and he’d slap his big head right down on her lap right there and he just look up at her and she would just like, “Oh, Jethro, you understand?” And she – actually this one conversation where she goes, “I find Jethro inspiring.” And the rest of us were like…
Jonathan: …What’s inspiring about this big, dumb dog. And she said, “He’s inspiring. He’s always there. He’s – you know, he…” And I started watching him and this dog had empathy like no human could have.
Jonathan: I mean, he just empathized, and she was right. And as it turned out, she was wrong about one thing. She said he’d always be there. Sadly, while they were at school one day, we took him to the vet because he was having something to throat and we didn’t know what it was. And doctor just took like thirty seconds. That’s it. “I’m so sorry, but your dog has lymphoma and there’s really nothing we could do. We could do chemo, but it would cost thousands and it might only prolong his life few months.” And I’m like, “Well – well, what’s this mean?” She said, “30 to 60 days. He’s got 30 to 60 days.” And that was – that was tough for our family because we came home, and I remember having the family meeting and I laid out what happened, and Ashley started bawling. And the other kids are sad, too, but Ashley is literally bawling. And the crazy thing is, Jethro is sitting across the room – he didn’t even know he’s got cancer, you know.
Jonathan: He has no idea. He gets up, he goes over to Ashley and he puts his big head right on her lap…
Jonathan: …And just is like, “I’m here for you.” And it just – and we’re like, “Oh, my gosh.” And 30 days later to the day, uh, he was gone. But I tell you, empathy is one thing that phones are killing empathy today for two reasons. One, because we’re so caught up in our own lives that we aren’t looking to anybody else. And, uh, two, we just – we don’t even notice other people around us. We don’t even notice. And it’s funny that this dog noticed that more than anybody else.
Jim: Yeah. Wow.
John: Jonathan McKee and his daughter Alyssa are our guests today on Focus on the Family with Jim Daly, your host. And, uh, we’re talking about some of the 40 realizations in this great book that they’ve written The Teen’s Guide to Face to Face Connections in a Screen to Screen World: 40 Tips to Meaningful Communication. Stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast to get your copy.
Jim: Let – let me pick up on that idea of empathy. It seems like the whole world is ripping empathy from humanity right now in a lot of different ways and maybe screens are the foundational culprit. But elaborate a little more on that, because that went by pretty fast in terms of empathy and the lack of empathy in the culture today and perhaps what screens are doing to deaden that sense of empathy. When was the golden age of empathy?
Jonathan: Oh, that’s a good question. I – I don’t know. I haven’t experienced it when that is, but what’s happening with empathy right now is – you know, empathy is really this ability for us to, you know, not get caught up in ourselves at the moment, but to really step into somebody else’s shoes and say what’s going on with them. And, you know, for a dad or mom, that means maybe when a kid comes home and is talking about their day, not try to fix it right away, but just literally say, man, what would I be feeling if I was there and just say, “I’m so glad you told me” and to be to step into their shoes. Screens are hindering that because sometimes we’re so caught up in our own world and now, we’ve got this device that’s distracting us, you know, even more. And that keeps us from empathizing with others.
Jim: The big question then becomes how – how do we reverse that trend, particularly as parents? What can we do with our teens to help them better understand empathy and make sure that they have it, uh, because they’re going to need it in this world?
Jonathan: Well, I think that’s where some realistic and fair guidelines that we don’t just throw out there as a rule, but as Alyssa said, that we model as mom and dad. You know, we can’t just say, “Hey, you know, no screens.” And there were centers staring at our own screens. But some of the simple things that we’ve talked about on this show before around this table, things like no tech at the table. Um, I know that was interesting as Alyssa was growing up, we always had that rule, no tech at the table. And that meant, dad, mom, none of us could bring tech at the table.
Jim: When you look back on that, uh, you know, we got you both here, which we’d normally don’t have the adult children of the guest, so this is real vulnerable…
Jim: …Of you.
Jonathan: You get all the dirt.
Jim: But, um…
Alyssa: More vulnerable of him.
Jim: …Did that become – yeah, that’s what I meant. Yeah.
Jim: Did it become, though, or a rift in your relationship? I mean, this screen issue…
Jim: …Did it put a wedge between you?
Alyssa: I think it was hard because with texting it feels like it’s private and it’s your conversation you have with your friends and it feels…
Jim: It’s your diary.
Alyssa: Yes, exactly. And I remember having a very hard time when he did start enforcing rules and, um, my mom as well. And they wanted it to be this open thing. And I think as a kid, that was really hard. I mean, I understand now because, you know, you want to be protective and you want to make sure your kids are making good decisions. But that was really difficult for me at first, like, oh, well, we have to monitor your texts, or we have the right to read all your texts. And I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. That is not fair.”
Alyssa: You know, like, how – how is that okay? And I understand looking back at it now, but I think I realize it was new territory.
Jim: But this actually, Alyssa – you know, somewhat jokingly, but it did – did begin to spiral you into some behavior that was not healthy.
Jim: Whether that was lying or just that addiction.
Jim: Speak to that – how it began to curve who you were.
Alyssa: Yeah. I think if I’m being honest, I – I knew that if I didn’t want my dad to read my texts or monitor my stuff, I had to pretend like I was good and perfect. And if I didn’t want him to monitor it, then I had to be someone else in front of him than I was in front of my friends. And so, I had this really bad lying habit that just started happening. I think it just started trickling, starting with the phone and, you know, pretending I was texting a friend when I was texting a boy or deleting my texts so that he couldn’t read them if he ever did happen to see my phone, which honestly, I don’t think you ever – I think maybe once you ever looked through my phone. But again, I was so paranoid…
Jim: Successfully (laughter).
Alyssa: Yeah, exactly. And – and the thing is, I became really good at lying and it seeped into my regular life even as I went off to college. I – I started getting into these unhealthy habits, making friends who weren’t the best choices. And – and I was so scared of letting down my family because I had come with this great façade like, everything’s all right. I’ve got it. You don’t have to monitor me. To where even starting in my, you know, early adult life in college, I was hiding that, you know. And it really got to a point where I felt like I was living a double life, not just with my family anymore, but I started lying to my friends, because I realized that, you know, if I wanted to be looking like this golden person, I had to lie. In my head that’s what I thought. And I realized I had all these fake relationships. They weren’t real. Um, and I started to become really depressed. And it was really difficult. And I remember at one point in my sophomore year, it got so bad – I had a picture perfect life. I had a great boyfriend, um, was doing good in school, had some good friends. But I just felt like everything was crashing down, like it was all fake and it wasn’t working. And I broke down, and I – I had a suicidal moment or I had these really dark thoughts and I wanted to take my own life. And I write about it more in the book, but basically, I realized, no, what am I doing? Like, I need to confess everything. Like, I need to put it out into the light now.
Jim: No, and I so appreciate that vulnerability. And I think, you know, that’s the – the issue. And you are in that transition moment in your 20s. You – you know what being a teenager in the modern world is really like in those friendships and those distractions in those alleys that you can get caught in, which is exactly the fears of us as parents. You know, and – and I guess the question I would ask you – and Jonathan, we’ll come back to you to fill in some of those blanks – but what can we do as parents? What’s your advice to us? That’s – where we have the fear…
Jim: …Of our children being harmed because of their screen time and what you were just describing.
Jim: But what can we do?
Alyssa: I think the best thing you can do is listen and be sympathetic and be a person that they can go to and talk to you. And I’m not saying don’t punish ever or anything like that, but there’s a time and a place and when – when it’s so bad that a kid feels like they can never talk to you because they’re just going to get in trouble all the time, um, that’s when that’s when it’s dangerous. You know, you need to be able to talk to your parents and know that they’re gonna understand and maybe they’ll punish you, but they still are understanding in and show, you know, I love you anyway…
Jim: …And it’s going to be okay and we’re gonna get through this together.
Jim: Well, and let me – let me press on that – that advice from both of you, really. Because I know the parents that are listening. I mean, these are committed Christian parents. They want their children to be healthy, spiritually, emotionally. And they’re doing everything they can. And yet, I would say smartphones and screens are probably the number one relational breaker in parenting right now because they’re so destructive and distracting. And I want you guys to be able to give the parents some insights here.
Jonathan: Well, and here’s one – one of the best pieces of advice I think we can offer parents is to not overreact. And you’ve heard me say before. I think we need to turn our overreaction into interaction. And the reason why is most the studies that came out on this – two researchers just put together this open source document. And they basically said, hey, let’s all combine our research. We’re noticing this mental health crisis in our country right now. What can we do about it? And a bunch of researchers that normally disagree, got together and – and kind of said, “What do we agree on?” And they agreed on two things. One, they agreed there is a mental health crisis. They – they first came to that agreement. As a matter of fact, suicide and depression are up logarithmically. Just nobody could deny that. But the second thing they agreed on is as much as they wanted to kind of blame screen time – you know, Netflix, video game time, all of it. The one thing they found that was really particularly damaging was social media. And it was very specific to our daughters. And that’s the two things they agreed on. We’re having a mental health crisis and it’s mostly social media and our daughters.
Jim: Alyssa, one thing we didn’t say is how are you doing now? I mean, you’re just a few years down the road. You seem like incredible.
Alyssa: (laughter) Oh, thank you.
Jim: Just a wonderful, young person. But so – so you’re doing better?
Alyssa: Yeah, definitely. Um, you know, over the years and throughout the rest of college and, you know, now my young adult life. You know, I’ve really realized that less can be more. And I do think it can be different for everyone, but at the same time, sometimes I look at certain things and I realize there’s gonna be more harm than good in this and in Instagram, that was it for me. I took a whole year off of Instagram, um, just to see what it would be like and if it would change things. And it’s been amazing. It’s nice to not have to be glued to that, to not have to feel the pressure of, oh, I have to take a picture in this moment and record it.
Jim: So, it changed your behavior after you took that long break.
Alyssa: Definitely. Definitely.
Jim: That’s good.
Alyssa: Oh, yeah. And I think, you know, one of the biggest things is whenever I go to an event now or I’m with friends at the beach or something, you know, I’m not thinking, oh, I have to take a photo by the beach. You know, I have to make this moment look perfect. And, you know, I’m just there and I’m able to be in the moment with my friends. Um, and it’s sparked a lot of interesting conversation, too, with my friends. And, um, you know, when I say I don’t have an Instagram, at first, I was thinking, oh, my gosh, I’m gonna be so weird, you know…
Alyssa: …Like everyone – everyone’s going to look at me like, what are you even thinking? But it’s really nice and it’s actually made people like, “oh,” and then they start confessing things to me, like, “Oh, I took a break once. It was so nice.” And I’m like, you know, “It’s really nice. Like, you should think of doing it long term, you know.” And talking about that and talking with them about, you know, why – why was that so nice for you? And – and it starts sparking these great conversations where you can connect with people about the problem in general or, you know, um, just getting to know them better because you’re sharing and being open with them in the moment.
Jim: Yeah, well, courage is what creates leaders. And I see that in you.
Alyssa: Oh, thank you.
Jim: I mean, seriously, and you’re leading on this with your dad’s help, obviously. But for young people to come to that conclusion, it’s awesome. And this has been terrific. You’ve written a great book together, Teen’s Guide to Face to Face Connections. And, uh, this is it and I’m telling you, if you need help, which I do and Jean does with our boys, I mean, we’re gonna get this. We’ll start using this as a conversation piece (laughter) exactly what you didn’t want. “Hey, boys…”
Jim: But this is great and, uh, I just wish you the best, God’s blessings. And if you’re in that spot where you need it, contact us here at Focus on the Family. And if you can provide a gift on a monthly basis, which really helps us with the budget, we would like to send you a copy of the Teen’s Guide to Face to Face Connections in a Screen to Screen World as our way of saying thank you for joining the team and thank you for evening out the budgeting process here at Focus. If you can’t do that, a gift of any amount will also help many, many families. So, join us and we’ll say thank you by sending you a copy of this wonderful book.
John: And to donate and to get your copy of the Teen’s Guide to Face to Face Connections in a Screen to Screen World, stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459. And coming up tomorrow, Elisa Morgan talks about walking through difficult times.
Mrs. Elisa Morgan: We like to like suck out all of the – the icky parts of life in Christianity and the reality is is that God embraces and joins us in the icky parts, in the here.