The Virtual Smorgasbord

Is the Internet endangering your children?

My husband and I love those all-you-can-eat joints. He accumulates great spoonfuls of meat, potatoes and turnip greens, while I choose just a bite or two — of everything. We both appreciate the variety: okra, yams, grilled/fried/roasted chicken, cookies, cakes, pies, ice cream. And sprinkles.

Yet, add a helping of poisonous mushrooms and it's a perfect picture of the Internet.

Eating a balanced diet

You already know the dangers lurking on the Web, but have you considered how that all-you-can-eat cyberfeast might affect pastors' kids? Consider the following PKs.

For years, Suzy has played the role of the good kid, winning Scripture drills and Awana contests, and doing the right thing because it's convenient. But she has never made a commitment to Christ and doesn't realize that her faith is not hers. Suzy swallows the Internet whole, gulping its images, advertising and values without stopping to evaluate them.

George leads a sheltered life; his education, leisure time and friends are monitored by careful parents. However, the Internet offers George music, movies, books and other distractions that are forbidden fruit. He just wants a nibble here and there — after all, isn't curiosity a sign of intelligence?

Annie fits in well — too well — at home, church and school. In fact, Annie habitually rearranges her values, allowing peer pressure to lead her to all the Web sites and chat rooms frequented by her buddies.

So far, these PKs are "just kids," right? Yes, and as such, they are understandably immature and need help in choosing their Internet diet, just as they need guidance in shopping at the mall or picking out a movie. However, the Internet possesses a quality that reaches out seductively, which allows for, in the words of a teenage pastor's child, "privacy. You can talk to your friends or listen to music or go shopping and just relax without [anyone] watching your every move and getting ready to gossip about you."

PKs who crave this kind of authenticity and privacy are prime victims for Internet abuse. And ironically, it may be the more mature kids who are most at risk.

Linda has high standards for friendship, but she can only find serious Christians her own age online. She spends hours at Christian Web sites where spiritually minded teens love her for herself. But do they? Really?

Mom and Dad have always challenged Brad to think through his convictions. The problem is that they've also insisted on helping him think. Online, however, he can secretly explore new philosophical terrain and form his own opinions.

Whether the Internet becomes a substitute for real relationships or an introduction to dangerous influences, it appeals to kids who feel isolated or stifled by parents or parishioners. And it does so subtly, even silently. Many parents are like one pastor's wife who was unaware of her children's vulnerability to the Web until she specifically asked her son. His reply? "Pastors' kids have trouble finding individuality . . . . [The Internet gives] a PK a chance to develop an opinion, attitude or perspective without the guidance of his parents."

Reading the menu

This desire to roam the back alleys of cyberspace without parental guidance is a warning flag, and wise parents — especially those who think their youngsters are immune — should consider the following steps to protect their children.

  • Find a filter. Filters are not perfect, but they're getting better. The safest are those which operate according to biblical standards, and many include lists of banned sites, features that scan documents for unacceptable words, and mechanisms that block chat rooms, forums and e-mail. Some also offer activity logs, which check not only the content of a child's online life but also the frequency and duration of Internet use.
  • Go public. Set up the computer in the family room or other high-traffic area where family members form a natural accountability group. Timers, such as those available from America Online, keep children from surfing while you're asleep or away from home. Be sure that Internet use at friends' homes, school or the public library is closely monitored.
  • Get it in writing. Have children sign an Internet-use contract with the following guidelines:

    1. Never provide personal information, including name, address, school, phone number or photos.
    2. Never respond to messages from unknown sources, and always inform parents of such messages.
    3. Immediately alert parents to strange, violent or sexually oriented Web pages or e-mail.
    4. Never give a password to anyone except parents.
    5. Follow these rules at home, school, the library and the homes of others.

Food poisoning avoided

Christian families already have a contract in writing. The Bible is full of warnings to watch over hearts and shun evil, so why not do as Moses suggested and write them on your doorposts? Use your desktop publisher to print verses like 1 Thessalonians 5:22, "Avoid every kind of evil," and Philippians 4:8, "Whatever is pure . . . think about such things." Tape the verses to the monitor or use them as computer wallpaper or as a screensaver.

Some parents might want to just unplug and go offline completely. While that may be the solution to extreme Internet abuse, the Web is a seemingly infinite source of information for enriching and educating the same children we want to protect. One PK, now a young adult, admits he struggled with online temptations, but says, "Some pastors' kids end up having interests and hobbies that don't really coincide with those of most of their peers. The Internet linked me with people who shared my interests."

All-you-can-eat, right? Great variety, no limits. But with a little caution, you can avoid the poison mushrooms.

Article copyright © 2003, Debra Allen.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.