/karen/

The internet, children and parenting

Wednesday, 16 May, 2012

My talk at Moore Women went well last Thursday: we had a good turn-out; even though I talked fast, I think I carried everyone along with me (and the slideshow certainly helped); it went well with Bec's talk (even though there were overlaps); and we got some good questions at the end. (We weren't able to answer them all, but hopefully we made some good points and helped people think about how to answer them.)

Anyway, because it's a shame to put so much work into something and only use the material once, because people have been asking me about it, and also because the thing I love about speaking is not so much the speaking but the writing of the thing I'm speaking, I thought I would put the content of my talk online (but without the slideshow; I did think about using SlideShare, but then decided against it as audio takes longer to get through than text. Also, I'd have to edit the audio file as I recorded everything and I'd have to review what I said, but it's easier to edit text than audio [well, for me, anyway]). I'm going to edit it a bit to remove some of the things that irk me about written speech (e.g. overuse of sentences beginning with “And”; techniques that work well in speech that don't work so well in text, and so on). But I'm not going to convert it into a full blown article because at the moment it's not worth my time; I want to get back to the graphic novel as soon as possible.

A few things to note:

All right. Enough preamble. Here's the talk.

Survey

I'd like to start with a quick survey. How many of you:

Introduction

IMG_0337

This is Astrid. She was born in August 2010 and she has never known a world without the internet.

Okay, let's not be dramatic; Astrid is only 20 months old. She has no idea what the internet is. But she does know about the devices that connect to it.

Consider this photo: it was taken just moments after she was born on my husband's iPhone. Since then, she's had family continually pointing iPhones at her, recording photos and video. When I inherited my mother's old iPad, Astrid took to it like a duck to water, and has now mastered tap and swipe. It's her favourite “toy”. If we let her, she'd play with it all day. She's only one and a half years old, and yet I'm sure she'd like nothing more than for us to give her an iDevice of her very own!

Astrid is clearly growing up in a digital age. I feel like part of me is preparing for the future now, because I know that one day, Astrid is going to want to go online. One day she'll want to read Wikipedia. One day she'll LOL at LOLCats. One day she'll whinge about me on her blog. One day she'll want to join Facebook.

(Okay, maybe not since Ben and I are on there and who likes hanging out with their parents on social networking …)

But you get my point. I'm sure it's why you're here. Like me, you want to start thinking about this stuff now. You want to prepare.

So in this talk I'm going to speak a bit about the internet—its “lighter” side (if I can put it that way) and its darker side—and a few things you can do to guide your children and equip them for the Big Bad World Wide Web. I must apologise: because of the massive scope of the topic (because the internet is massive), I'll be speaking very generally. But if you want to ask specific things, feel free to raise them during question time.

A spoiler alert: I'm not going to be heavily prescriptive. Please regard what I say as recommendations rather than rules. My aim is to educate you so that you can make wise decisions. How you choose to parent is entirely up to you. Instead, my goal is to help you think about how to teach your kids to use the internet responsibly. I don't just mean teaching them skills and how to avoid hazards. I mean training them in how to think about it—how to think about it the way that God thinks about it—and therefore how that affects how they should behave online.

But before we get to that, let's talk a little about what this virtual world looks like.

The lighter side of the internet

I want to start with what's good about the internet because often when it comes to this topic, people focus on the negatives and forget about the positives. The result is you end up feeling like it's better to keep your kids in an internet-free bubble where the name “Justin Bieber” has no meaning.

But like anything man-made, created with the imagination, skills and abilities God chose to bless human beings with, there are good things about the internet, even though it's also been corrupted by sin.

Here are eight:

1. A place to learn

Firstly, the internet is a place to learn. Once upon a time, if you wanted to learn, you had to go where the information was—schools, universities, libraries and so on. Now you don't have to go anywhere; the information is at your fingertips!

2. A place to discover new things

Secondly, the internet is a place to discover new things. It caters to every niche market you can think of—crocheters, comic book lovers, cat owners, people who like to crochet Catwoman, etc. The internet is ripe with serendipity.

3. A place to share

Once we do find something new and wonderful, we're keen to share it with others. There's something about sharing that makes the experience of discovery all the richer—as if other people's pleasure in response to our finds somehow adds to our pleasure.

4. A place to create and publish

Speaking of sharing, fourthly, the internet is a place to create and publish. If you practise any of the creative arts (writing, drawing, composition, etc.), it's a great time to be alive. In previous generations, to get your work in front of a wider audience, you needed patronage—like a publishing or recording contract. Now you can put your work online for a potential audience of millions—with no middleman.

5. A place to play

Fifthly, the internet is a place to play. So many games! You don't even have to purchase them; many are free with advertising. Also, you don't even have to play alone; most games are social, so you can play with your friends without needing to be in the same place at the same time.

6. A place to laugh

Sixthly, the internet is a place to laugh. Okay, a lot of the humour on the internet isn't very tasteful. But then you have things like otters who look like Benedict Cumberbatch.

7. A place to socialise

Seventhly, the internet is a place to socialise. It's hard to imagine life without social networking now, isn't it. Social networking has its problems, but one of the things I love about it is it enables you keep in touch with people when time and distance separate you.

8. A place to declare God's word

Finally, the internet is a place to declare God's word—to persuade people of Jesus' Lordship and call on them to follow him. We can all do this in some way in our online communications—even with strangers, believe it or not. (I have stories. Ask me later.)

The darker side of the internet

So that's some positives. However, as we know, sin corrupts everything. The world wide web is no exception; it too is in bondage to decay, as it says in Romans 8:21.

Here are eight examples.

1. Spam

One: spam. It's everywhere—emails, text messages, instant messaging, even games—and we can't get rid of it.

2. Viruses

Two: viruses. A virus is a program designed to replicate itself. Some are benign. But others are malicious—exploiting your hardware's vulnerabilities, stealing your personal information and using your contacts to infect others.

3. Piracy

Three: piracy—copyright infringement. In the noughties, we had Napster, the music peer-to-peer file sharing service. Now in the 2010s, you can download illegal copies of almost anything—software, games, movies, TV shows, even novels.

Interesting fact: the most pirated material on the web is pornography.

4. Porn

Which leads us to example 4: porn. Porn was around long before the internet in various forms. But the internet gives it much much much wider distribution and accessibility than ever before.

And of course, related to pornography are things like cybersex and sexting.

5. Anti-God content

Fifthly, because the internet caters to every niche market you can think of, much of the content is anti-God, promoting everything from atheism to anorexia, to terrorism and cyber terrorism. Of course, this being the internet, this information is at our fingertips.

6. Anti-social behaviours

Sixthly, we have what I call anti-social behaviours: cyberbullying, cyberstalking, trolling (i.e. being deliberately inflammatory), flaming (i.e. insulting or criticising others) and defamation—all ways that people can intimidate, threaten and harm others.

Unfortunately people who engage in this sort of behaviour lose sight of the fact that their targets are also humans beings, created in God's image. They think there are no consequences—particularly if they are doing it anonymously. In addition, because they're doing these things online, it's harder to catch and convict them.

One of the more high profile cases of cyberbullying involves Megan Meier, an American 13-year-old from Missouri. She befriended someone who she thought was a boy named “Josh” on MySpace, but it was actually Lori Drew, Lori's daughter (who was a former friend of Megan's) and one of Lori's employees. They pretended to be “Josh” in order to get back at Megan for allegedly spreading gossip about Lori's daughter, and they earned her trust online only to humiliate and hurt her, telling her she was better off dead. As a result, Megan committed suicide in her bedroom closet. Lori Drew was never convicted properly for her actions, but after her trial, Missouri passed new laws against cyberbullying and cyberstalking.

7. Identity theft/fraud

Seventhly, there is identity theft and fraud—i.e. when people steal personal and financial information about you for their own benefit.

8. Anti-privacy

And finally, there is the erosion of privacy. Sites like Facebook actively encourage you to share more information in exchange for a greater social experience. Indeed, for a long time the default Facebook setting on user profiles was “public”. Daniel Lyons on The Daily Beast points out that

What's happening is that our privacy has become a kind of currency. It's what we use to pay for online services. Google charges nothing for Gmail; instead, it reads your e-mail and sends you advertisements based on keywords in your private messages.

The real holy grail is your list of friends. With that information, marketers can start sending more targeted messages. (Source)

Now before this talk, I hadn't thought much about the Christian perspective on privacy. After all, we have no privacy before God; he sees and know everything about us. But Christians should be pro-privacy because of the way we were created: in God's image as individuals with our own characteristics and personalities, but individuals who were created for relationship—relationship with God and with one another. Our individuality and particularity means that we have personal information that belongs to us and us alone. And part of loving others means respecting and valuing them as individuals, and therefore not misusing or abusing their personal information. Privacy laws act to protect us from other people's sinfulness. They protect us from being unfairly judged and discriminated against, and they protect us from being exploited.

Here's an example. This is an app called Girls Around Me. It's made by a Russian company called i-Free, and it was recently pulled from Apple's app store—for reasons that will soon become clear. What it does is tell you which girls are near your present location based on the last time they checked in on Facebook and Foursquare. The data is publicly available because these girls have not set their profiles to private. This means that anyone can find out information about them—their full names, ages, where they went to school, etc. All the app does is take that data and present it in a way that's more relevant to the user. Unfortunately the sort of people who would use an app like this are men who are, to put it crassly, looking to score. And they will use this info to try to do so.

Some recommendations for parenting

Okay, now that I've scared you silly with the darker side of the internet, let me make a few parenting recommendations.

As I said, lot of what I'm going to say is going to be general, rather than specific. This is partly because I haven't had first-hand experience of parenting in this area, but it's also partly because every family is different, and therefore you and your husband need to discuss and decide for yourselves what will work for your kids as opposed to someone else's kids. Over supper, please share with each other what's worked for you, or what you've heard works for other families. And please view the following as a springboard for discussion.

1. Take a varied approach

Firstly, take a varied approach. Obviously what you do and what rules you choose to enforce will change according to the ages of your children, because what may be appropriate for primary schoolers is not going to be the same for high schoolers. So exercise wisdom.

Feel free to use things like inbuilt parental controls, keylogging software (which tracks what keys are struck on a computer keyboard), filtering software and accountability software (like Covenant Eyes). But know that such tools have their disadvantages as well as advantages. Also, be mindful of the fact that you cannot rely on technology alone to keep your kids safe.

Indeed, taking measures to protect your kids may not be enough; unless you also equip them, they will be unprepared for life on the interwebs and all that that entails.

2. Stay informed

Secondly, stay informed. Keep abreast of technology and the next big internet “thing”, even if you don't use it. I know it takes time, there's a lot of information out there, and if you're not really interested in technology, the task can seem tedious. But it doesn't take much to stay aware.

For example, even though I don't play Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games or MMORPGs, I understand what they are, how they work, why people like them and what their down sides are. I got this info from Wikipedia and a couple of articles. (See “Don't waste your second life” in Briefing #349, October 2007; unfortunately the article is not online.) Even better, I talked to someone who is into MMORPGs: Bec. Bec plays World of Warcraft. She gave me the lowdown on it in less than five minutes. She even logged into her account and showed me how it works. She could do the same for you.

Most importantly (and I cannot stress this enough), make sure you are familiar with the privacy settings for any service you use online. Don't assume they won't make your information public. This is particularly relevant if you post stuff about your kids; you don't want to leave a digital trail that might come back to haunt them when they're older. (Unfortunately the internet has a long memory.) Also unfortunately, services often change their layout and options, which means you have to keep on learning how to do things. (Facebook is particularly guilty of this.) But because it's important, make time to explore, or ask someone who knows more to show you around.

3. Educate

Thirdly, educate your kids about the internet. We teach them about the world around them—about colours, shapes and things, and their relationship to us; similarly, we need to educate our kids about the world wide web—what it is, what it does and what they can use it for. Teach them about the lighter side of the internet as well as the darker side. Teach them about such thing as wikis, blogs, MMORPGs, social networking, spam and viruses, but also teach them about what makes these things helpful or unhelpful, useful or downright evil. It's better that that information comes from us rather than from peers or strangers.

Also teach them about the limits of communication and how to interpret what they see and read.

4. Train

Fourthly, train your kids. Train your kids to think God's thoughts after him. Teach them God's view of the world and why—especially in the areas of personhood, sexuality and other human relationships, because those seem to be the main areas that affect online behaviour. (For an excellent piece on this, see Roger and Toni Lindeback's article in Briefing #385.) As it says in Proverbs 22:6,

Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Tools like keyloggers, filters and accountability software are all very well, but unless we take steps to shape our children's worldviews according to God's, they will not understand why, for example, things like piracy and pornography are wrong. Hopefully by continuing to speak God's word to them and living the Christian life before them, they will learn not to treat people as objects, but will instead love their neighbours as themselves.

In addition, train them in how to use the internet. It's such a terrific resource for anyone with an enquiring mind. As I said, we are at a point unparalleled in history where all the information is at our fingertips. (This is particularly true when it comes to Bible study; there is a wealth of Christian resources online.) Teach your kids how to find the information—that is, basic research skills. Teach them to take the initiative to find things on their own.

But not just that, teach them to evaluate the information. Is it reliable? Can it be corroborated? What was the author's agenda? How should I think about it Christianly?

Furthermore, teach them what to do with the information. Get them to ask, “How can I use what I've learned? How does it apply to me? How does it fit with what I already know?”

And, of course, teach them about privacy and disclosure. What information are you giving up about yourself? Who can see it? What are the consequences of sharing this information—both for you and for other people? Teach them that privacy laws serve people by protecting them from the sinfulness of others, but they are not to be a cover for sinful behaviour.

Related to the above, train them up in the way that they should go so that they prove themselves trustworthy. When laying down the rules for internet usage, some parents may do things like insist that all devices be used in public spaces in the home, that usage is confined to particular hours of the day, that their child give them their passwords so that the parents can check up on them, or that their child comply with any keylogger/filtering/accountability software they've installed. These are good and useful rules. However, I think they should be viewed as a means to an end—the goal being that your child becomes mature enough not to need rules anymore. We parents do not want our children to stay children forever; eventually we want them to grow into fully fledged adults.

Also related to the above, train your children to be emotionally and mentally self-aware. By “emotionally self-aware”, I mean training them to recognise the emotions that they have, what has triggered these emotions and what these emotions tell them about themselves. By “mentally self-aware”, I mean helping them track their moods over time—when they feel good (and what contributes to that), when they feel low (and what contributes to that) and so on. This is hard stuff; most adults I know don't know how to do this. But the reason why I think it's important (aside from it being helpful in training oneself for godliness) is because when you are emotionally and mentally vulnerable—when you feel bad about yourself and your life—the internet can be a hugely unhelpful place. According to one Australian study, neurotic and lonely people spend more time on Facebook than non-lonely people. Furthermore, scanning other people's status updates often leaves people feeling worse about themselves, because it seems like everyone else is leading happier and more enriching lives. We need to teach our kids how to meet their emotional needs in appropriate ways—while at the same time, of course, lavishing them with love and attention so that they do not feel neglected in the family context.

5. Model

Fifthly, model. Model godliness. As Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:8, “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come”. Model godliness in submitting to the rules of your online services. For example, don't be one of those parents who allow their children to lie about their ages so that they can join Facebook. Model godliness in your online behaviour—in what you share and post, in how you interact with others online (particularly strangers), and in how you respond to people who insult or threaten you. Model forgiveness. Model self-control so that you are not always at the mercy of your messages or electronic devices. Model ministry—in building your existing relationships, in serving others online, in building them up in Christ and sharing the gospel.

Model relationships. I don't just mean romantic relationships (i.e. marriage); I mean all relationships—acquaintances, friendships and so on. It's important for your kids to see what good relationships are supposed to look like in real life so that they learn how to form them themselves. Real relationships are difficult: they're messy, you can't control them, you can't go back and edit what you say, and you can't always present your best side to the other person to make them like you more. But real relationships are what God made us for—relationship with him and relationship with each other. Sin spoils these relationships, but through the grace of God, we can reconcile after conflict, we can repent and offer forgiveness, and we can love even in the midst of hurt and pain.

6. Enjoy

Sixthly, enjoy the internet with your children. Don't forget about the internet's lighter side! Learn about stuff together—how to grow tomatoes in your backyard, how to bake gingerbread men, or how to make a circuit board. Share fun, kid-friendly videos and links. Play games. Make stuff and publish it.

7. Glorify God

And finally, above all, glorify God in all you do online.


P.S. The results are in on the 2012 Best Australian blogs competition. Although this blog didn't win anything, I would just like to thank the 69 of you who voted in the People's Choice round. Sometimes when I put stuff out there, it's hard to know how it's being received in cyberspace, so I really appreciate your support! Here's to future blogging smile

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