KEEPING CHILDREN SAFE ONLINE

– A Short Parent’s Guide to Riding the Wild West as a Christian

I recently chatted to some parents from church about their children’s use of the internet during lockdown.  They faced a problem. 

As the COVID virus spread, children’s activities fled online, leaving parents scrabbling to protect their children in the electronic rush.  A timely look over the shoulder could no longer regulate screen time. Some children were having to spend hours on the computer, particularly if they were home schooling in isolation. Unlike the pandemic, this internet dependency will continue. Parents will therefore have to continue to grapple with the problem of how guard their children’s safety online.

What should Christian parents do?

Wild West

For many Christians parents, the internet seems like the American Wild West.  They recognise the opportunities for prospectors. They don’t want their children to miss out.  But they also fear the bandits, conn men, and unsavoury characters exploiting the new frontiers. They want to protect their children from corrupting influences, but they are not sure where to point their pistols.

Parents are usually alert to pornography and violent games.  But from a Christian perspective, there are other concerning critters. Take the product-placed materialism of YouTube, the narcissistic selfism of Instagram, or the intolerant hatred of Twitter. The intoxicating quick-draw culture can be as poisonous as the net ‘nasties.’ The hand feels far less steady when taking aim at these spectres, not least because they also inhabit ‘real’ life.

Online Retreat

With so many outlaws roaming the net, parents may be tempted to corral the wagons and retreat into safety, dragging their children kicking and screaming from their Nintendos.  However, such a strategy is practically impossible in our day and age. We may confiscate devices at home, but we can’t remove them from schools, cafes, and shopping centres. Our electronic interconnectivity is an unavoidable part of modern life.

Electronic monasticism is not just impractical; it is undesirable for a Christian. Christ calls us to be in the world but not of the world (John 17.15-16). He wants us to be engaged with our culture, without buying into the culture’s self-centred values.  It maybe a myth that the internet is a ‘world,’ but it is still a tool through which people interact. Christians must therefore use it to communicate with the people God loves.

Virtual Restriction

Most Christian parents would probably recognise that they cannot beat a total retreat from the tablet. Instead they are more likely to restrict usage like an internet python.  “You can have an hour on the PlayStation if you do your homework.” “I will take your phone away in 10 minutes and, no, you can’t use it in your room.” Thus the coil is tightened around the child, choking their incessant surfing.

The problem for the Computer Constrictor is that children, like their mobile phones, are smart. They can find apps and tips for popping online that will jump parental firewalls.  But more importantly, parents need to heed the lesson of Romans 7.8: sin is rule resistant. Your best efforts to control your child may make their online behaviour worse and drive it underground.

Control, on its own, does not produce character. Think of the privileged wild child who lived as daddy wanted until she left the confines of the home.  As Christians, we want to foster character: that ability of a child to say no to wrong things unaided, not just because we apply external pressure.  Discipline has an important role, but we need to be clear on what discipline can and cannot achieve.

Deficient Discipline

In short, rules show what’s right, discipline restrains bad behaviour – but they do not make a child good.  Without “the law” (God’s rules), I would not know what was right, says Paul in Romans 7.7. The “rod” of discipline drives foolishness from the heart, says Proverbs 22.15.  But a person can only be saved from sin and enter the kingdom of God, by being “born again,” said Jesus (John 3.3, Mark 10.26-27).  We need Christ to change us from the inside out to develop a godly or right character.

Discipleship must therefore go hand-in-hand with discipline if our children are to live like Christ in our technological world.  Think of the new tree planted in your park. Discipline is like the plastic covering that protects the trunk from rabid rodents.  Discipleship is the hand that waters the sapling. But the Word and Spirit of God is the sun and water that makes for growth.  The protective guards are removed slowly as the tree matures and has the strength to stand.

What does this mean in practice for parents who are seeking to help their mini technologists navigate the internet safely?

Guarding and Growing

Parents need to simultaneously guard their children through discipline and seek their children’s growth through discipleship, pointing them to Christ.

Guarding might include setting sensible time limits of computer use, not allowing screen time in the bedroom alone, adhering to programs’ age restrictions  (13 years old for Whatsapp and most social media), and installing software filters.

Some recommendations may help. Free software such as GOOGLE FAMILY LINK for smart phones and QUSTODIO for computers are worth installing. WINDOWS 10 also provides parental controls.

The software will help block harmful sites and monitor usage for you.  There will be ways to circumvent the programmes, but they are still prudent.  Discipline is necessary but it must be applied in conjunction with discipleship.

Engaging with the Bitstream

Discipleship will involve talking to our children about uses of the internet and applying the gospel, with biblical boundaries and values.  Christians will often find themselves swimming against the bitstream and will need to engage with the data torrent.

Our children will be taught that pornography enables them to explore their sexual preferences, for example.  Christians will want to say that the internet shapes tastes. Screen sex is not real sex and, so, if your tastes are shaped by screen sex, you will face glitchy real sex, with the threat of viruses.  Sexual attraction is natural, but lust is adultery according to Jesus (Matthew 5.28). Pornography preys on attraction to spawn lust by hacking another’s intimate images.  It grooms you to be a micro-cheater, someone who is unfaithful in mind and body.  Such addictive habits set you up for crashes in marriage and with God. Christ came to save us from this way of life. God intends the delights of sex to be explored within the security of a life-long loving marriage, not an exploitative peepshow.

Deletion and Reboot in Christ

We need to be clear about right and wrong. But it is equally important to be clear about the grace of Christ. We all fall into sin; we all fail God. Christ came to delete our shameful history forever.  He died for sin, once and for all. He rose again to reboot our shameful practices and free us from the thoughts and deeds that enslave us by the power of his spirit.  He calls us to reset our system by turning from wrong and following his ways.  Jesus takes players and hackers and enables them to proudly live their best lives on and off the screen.  One day, he promises that he will return to make his followers ‘Insta-perfect’.

Slow Reprogramming

Christ’s life is more all-consuming and exhilarating than any virtual reality game, but it is not easy.  There are sacrifices to make. There are temptations to fight. There is no technological short cut in discipleship. It happens at the speed of an old dial-up connection, using old school technology.  Praying for your kids. Praying with them. Talking to them about Jesus.  Reading the Bible with them.  Modelling a Christlike life. Bringing them to church and youth group weekly. There are no ‘life hacks’ for Christian parents. Christ’s character cannot be downloaded; our hearts are reprogrammed slowly by God’s Spirit as we key His word into our minds. Church connections may drop out and may need to be carefully re-established. Patience and grace are required.

Help for Lone Rangers

At times, parents may feel overwhelmed by the task. But we are not lone rangers.  God has given parents resources that will help them navigate the internet age: His people.

John Dyer’s book From the Garden to the City’ provides a biblical view of technology. Tim Chester’s booklet, Will you Be My Facebook Friend includes 12 guidelines for using social media. Patricia Weerakon has produced a set of books for 7 to 10 year-olds called The Birds and the Bees,’ with one to discuss pornography. (Leave those chats too late and YouTube will do the talking for you!)

More importantly, God has given us the local church to help us. Youth groups are not surrogate parents, but they should help teach children to follow Christ in our internet age.  They provide a place where our children can make Christian friends, ‘be real’ about their struggles, and meet future Christian partners. Church is a place where Christians can get support from others in parenting. Meet with them weekly. Share your difficulties.  Get the wisdom of others.  We do not ride alone.

Eternal Security with Christ

This year has felt like a protracted Black Friday sale. People have scrambled to buy into technology, leaving parents to protect their children in the stampede. Parents are painfully aware that youth understand the “electric drama” of the internet in a way that alienates the previous generations, as Professor Marshall McLuhan said. “Character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts” (us parents).  “Now all the world’s a stage,” he wrote. Parents may feel helpless, but Christ is still the stage manager, the great programmer, the glorious designer who loves us and restores us to reflect his brilliance as we trust in him. However wild the electronic frontiers may seem, Christ remains the source of eternal security for all our children.