Many parents are nervous if not downright terrified of their children using the internet – and that is tricky especially since more and more children are being expected to use it for homework and research projects (our 9 year-old is often having to do this). My aim here is to provide a balanced view which hopefully provides the route to healthy internet usage.
This is based on a talk given on Sunday 30th September 2007 to parents at All Souls. A number have asked for this to be made more widely available and so this is the result. You can download an mp3 of the original talk – but I’ve tried to distill some of the key ideas for wider application and so this is very slightly different from the talk. Let me know what you think/suggestions/comments.
- Gospel Opportunities and Resources – there are incredible resources out there whether sermons to download, bible study prep, apologetics sites.
- Gospel Access – the internet provides amazing opportunities for the gospel in countries where access is restricted
- Pastoral support – while there are pitfalls and it is the bane of many a GP (who has to contend with patients wielding wads of ‘authoritative’ research), more people have access to pastoral support and help than ever before.
- Information Resource – limitless and uncontrollable. Despite the real information gap for those who can’t afford it, it still provides access for people around the world (eg most of my students in Kampala had email addresses) – much cheaper and easier than books etc.
- Networking and Contacting – amazing potential for contacting old friends.
- Democracy and Freedom – it is harder for regimes to keep things secret now (eg recent events in Burma). That has to be a good thing.
- Time-saving & penny-saving shopping – the net really can help.
Bill Thompson speaks of the 3 technological M’s to wise up to:
- Mobiles phones
- Messengers (eg Skype, MSN, iChat)
- MySpace (& Facebook etc)
Childnet International have come up 3 Cs for things to watch out for:
The key issue then is: DON’T BE NAÏVE!
- NAMELESSNESS – the internet offers anonymity. While there are perhaps a few advantages to this, there are real dangers – esp as online identities can all too easily get dislocated from one’s ‘real identity’.
- ADDICTIONS – surfing is addictive: like a infinitely-channelled TV where you keep flicking over in the vain hope that there may be something more interesting to look at. Furthermore, you can get sucked into thinking that just because information is available, it is necessarily important or useful. [NB Wurman’s Information Anxiety (Indianapolis: QUE 2001): A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England. I haven’t even mentioned the more obvious porn or gambling addictions that the internet can feed. I’m just talking about plain old surfing.
- ILLUSIONS – the danger of the virtual becoming more ‘real’ than the real. This is probably the most insidious issue and it is very hard to articulate what is good and what isn’t. There is nothing innately wrong about the virtual in and of itself. The greatest artforms are in different ways seeking to transport us into something virtual – but the aim is that we then understand the real with fresh eyes. From childhood we know we have to suspend disbelief all the time – when we read stories or watch science fiction movies or whatever. The problem comes when we are unable to distinguish between the real and the virtual. But it has huge dangers – especially when you couple it with the possibility of anonymity. You don’t know who is REALLY on the other end. To surrender oneself to someone who is completely unknown is foolhardy in the extreme.
- VULNERABILITY – this is the issue that I suspect most concerned about. (See Sunday Times article from May 07 on Paedophiles’ use of Skype) There is the issue of porn of course, and the fact that our children have access to stuff that would normally be inaccessible. But there is also the fact of stalking/grooming whereby people look for vulnerable people to abuse. Chat rooms are particularly dangerous for this (see picture – i can’t for the life of me work out where i got this – so if you know, please let me know!). But adults are also vulnerable because of phishing/identity theft.
- EXPLOITATION – there is no doubt that there are those who use the internet to exploit people – just like they do with the phone and printed matter. But it is the scope and ease with which we can all be sucked into buying what we don’t need. Never forget the ancient Roman adage of caveat emptor or BUYER BEWARE.
Confronted by these dangers, it is wise to establish some ground rules – whether we are parents, children or just happy surfers. Hopefully this will provide a sensible Christian approach of things that we can agree to. So:
DON’T NAÏVE! BE WEB-WISE! BE A PANDA!
- PRIVACY ONLINE
- NEVER give out personal information (e.g. full name, school address, phone and home details) to people you don’t actually know/trust online.
- Be cautious how much you reveal of yourself in chat rooms etc.
- Only use only reputable payment sites that have security measures (often indicated by an address starting: https://) to pay online.
- ACCOUNTABILITY OFFLINE
- Allow others to keep an eye on time spent on line and sites watched.
- For children: ALWAYS talk about anything that makes you worried or uncomfortable with an adult.
- NET-REALITY CHECKED
- Always be conscious of the difference between cyberspace and real space, the virtual and real.
- Maintain your integrity – don’t allow yourself to become one person(s) online, and another offline.
- NEVER meet someone in real space that you have met in cyberspace – unless there are VERY good reasons. If you are not an adult, ensure it is with an adult’s permission and NEVER ever meet them on your own.
- DISCRIMINATING DOWNLOADER
- NEVER accept emails/IM messages/files/pictures from people you don’t know/trust. May contain viruses or worse.
- NEVER assume that everything you read/see is reliable. Always check sources and offers – but this goes further than simply what you read.
- ALIVE IN CHRIST
- Never forget who you are in Christ. His expectations still apply in cyberspace – how could it suddenly be OK to gossip or slander, steal or lust in the virtual world – it is still our real minds and hearts that are affected. This is where Norman Fraser’s book: Net Commandments comes in very helpful.
- I’ve tried to sum it up under 3 BE’s
- Be Yourself – never pretend to be anyone you are not before Christ
- Be Godly – never do/see anything that you would be embarrassed to show Christ
- Be a Witness – never write anything that you would be embarrassed to say to Christ
These are especially aimed at helping parents work out realistic patterns for children and teenagers.
- Locations – best place for a computer is a communal part of the home so you can monitor what children are looking at. Very important if they are using a webcam or skyping people. Harder if you have wireless of course.
- Rations – there is no reason for children to be online for more than 30-60 mins a day (unless it is for homework). In same way we should ration TV/ playstations etc. Encourage other things – encourage them to get a life!
- Fasts – if it has become a serious addiction, then it might be wise to take time out (eg for a month!). I know of more people who are deciding not to have broadband at home or leaving laptops at work – that’s not always realistic/practical (eg homework needs etc). Perhaps then just say no to surfing for pleasure.
- Software – this is different from security/virus software. The Get Net Wise site (see below) has lots to suggest for different needs: eg monitoring web use, filter unsuitable sites or content, set online time limits. NB some of the filtering programmes can be a total pain and more trouble (they block everything useful and so a parent has to keep unlocking pages). Covenant Eyes has a different approach in that it keeps one accountable after the event (by sending an email to a specified accountability partner if you’ve looked at dodgy stuff or uninstalled the software!
V. USEFUL WEBSITES
- Get Net Wise – tons of software options and expert advice – HUGELY HELPFUL
- Covenant Eyes – some of the best software around to keep one accountable to others online.
Help & Advice:
- Blog Safety – useful parents’ forum
- Childnet – lots of useful advice and links (see also their Sorted page, produced by young people, and Chatdanger)
Help with battling porn and other related stuff
- XXX Church - lots of resources, testimonies and help
- Dirty Girls Ministries - help particularly for women
- Living Waters Ministry – lots of really good stuff – and a community environment for getting help
- True Freedom Trust – help with unwanted same-sex attraction
- The Best Book on this – Tim Chester’s Captured by a Better Vision reviewed here
- Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre
- Internet Watch Foundation – UK hotline for reporting illegal online activity
I know you’re going to think this is silly (and people laughed at the announcement at the seminar) but it is (believe it or not) serious and not just a means to a fast buck. I’ve produced these mousemats and mugs as a way of keeping some of these things on the agenda. Of course they will never stop anyone getting into dodgy things by themselves but they might just be a last-minute nudge in the right direction.
In case you were wondering, the basic cartoon (which I since Photoshopped and fiddled around with) was scribbled by my good friend (and uber-talented) Alex Webb-Peploe. You can be assured that he will get his fair share of royalties from any sales.
These are available from The Quaerentia Store!