When I was a kid, each morning I would get out of bed and walk into the kitchen to see the same thing. My dad. He would be hovered over a bowl of cereal and reading his Bible. That image has stuck with me throughout my life. It has impressed upon me that Bible study is an essential priority in the life of a Christian. He never told me to read my Bible. Instead, he modeled this behavior for me. It is a deep impression that can only be made via one method.
Example is the most tangible, concrete, genuine, and accessible way to teach anyone anything. And if we are to protect our children from the entanglements of the World Wide Web, example must be our primary weapon. This is what we must lead parents to understand.
Of course, there are safeguards, filters, and programs that can help to limit, monitor, and restrict online access. And these are essential. But, they also have their limits. Our kids are smarter than the software. Workarounds are not too difficult for them to figure out, and computer access is not limited to your own home. Children have lots of opportunities to access the web that are beyond our control: at school, at a friend’s house, on a gaming system, or on a mobile device such as an iPod Touch. Ultimately, an adolescent will access what he or she wants to access.
Therefore, the challenge is more about building character than policing activity through monitoring software. And the best way to build character in an online world is to be an example of character in an online world.
Be an example of accountability.
If you work with elementary students, you have probably heard kids who brag to others about seeing R or PG-13 rated movies. Aside from being appalled at what many parents will allow their children to watch, another observation comes to mind. Children who are allowed to see these movies always seem to view this “privilege” as bragging rights. What causes them to see it that way? It has to do with the things kids understand about maturity and accountability.
It’s helpful to agree on what kids know and understand. They understand that some movies are for grown-ups and some are for kids. They understand that when they were younger, “grown-up” movies were not okay for them to view. They understand that many kids are accountable to a rating system that precludes them from watching things with mature content, but adults are not; therefore, they connect viewing these kinds of movies with adulthood. They feel grown up because they are allowed to watch “grown up” movies. They understand the double standard and want to be on the adult side of it. They view peers who are still held subject to the accountability of the rating system as immature and unfortunate.
Consider this: accountability is for kids. If children hold to this view, then they will see accountability as something they will one day outgrow. In fact, they will look forward to it. In their minds, this will be a sign of maturity. They will be too grown up for accountability.
Online accountability isn’t just for kids. It’s for the whole family. We can exemplify accountability by installing an online filter and monitoring software. I recommend 3XWatch to monitor web activity and Safe Eyes for content filtering. Both are available at xxxChurch.com. 3XWatch is free. When installed, it sends an accountability report to your chosen accountability partners every two weeks, listing any questionable websites that were visited. Safe Eyes is $50 for a one-year subscription. It blocks inappropriate content by using powerful online filters.
Explain to your family that the goal is not just to keep pornography and questionable content away from the kids but to keep it out of the home. Tell your children that the whole family is to be held accountable for what they view and visit online. This is not only a practical safeguard but also a powerful example.
Be an example of transparency.
If we expect children to be open and honest about what they do online, then we will have to model this kind of transparency for them. What you do will make a greater impact than what you say. And there are practical ways to be transparent with your own online activity that will exemplify openness and respect for your family.
First, establish that all computing must be done out in the open. This means getting the computers out of the bedrooms. This means that laptops must be used in the open as well. Yes, this can be inconvenient, especially for the parent who leads by example. But isn’t it a worthwhile inconvenience?
Secondly, eliminate online secrecy. Imagine I told you that I have a room in my house that is just for me. I have secret things in there. I do secret things in there. I keep a lock on the door, and no one in my family is allowed in except for me. You would probably view my behavior as strange, suspicious, dysfunctional, and a little bit paranoid. It would be.
In physical space this kind of secrecy would be considered unacceptable. But in cyberspace, we defend it under the banner of privacy. Many even do so between spouses. My wife and I both have Facebook accounts, and are intermittently active on them. We also have e-mail accounts that require a password to access. And we know each other’s passwords. Furthermore, our kids know that we know each other’s passwords. They will hear their mom say, “Feel free to logon to my Facebook account whenever you want. I have nothing to hide.”
The same goes for e-mail. Our kids see that we trust each other. Our kids see that we have nothing to hide from one another. Our kids see that more trust is established through openness than the “respect of privacy.” Our kids begin to understand that privacy is only a big deal when you have something to hide.
Our kids understand that when they go online the same rules apply to them, because this has been modeled for them.
Be an example of open communication.
We all want our children to talk to us about anything. But, are we talking to them about anything? The issue of talking to your kids about sex is a topic for an article of its own. But when it comes to communication, parents need to open this channel.
When I was in sixth grade I was curious about girls. I was very curious. I wanted to know things about sex, but it was not a topic of open communication in our home. When my friend invited me to go to his house after school and look at his brother’s magazines, it was a dilemma. It wasn’t about lust; it was about curiosity. That entire day my convictions and my curiosity did battle. Curiosity won. My home was not a good source of information regarding the things I was curious about, so I looked elsewhere. I went where I could get answers.
The Internet is the most powerful and prolific source of information in the history of the world. And if we do not clearly establish ourselves as the source of information for our children, they will look for the answers in cyberspace. After all, cyberspace is a better source of information in many ways. It doesn’t judge us. It won’t laugh at our questions. We can’t embarrass it. It won’t embarrass us. We can ask it “stupid” questions. We can approach it without guilt. It has no agenda. The Internet gives complete and fairly reliable information. It doesn’t tell you to wait until you’re older. It is available 24/7. It is full of useful information. It is tireless.
Here’s a sad statement. As parents, maybe we could stand to be a little more like the Internet. Go ahead … read that last paragraph again.
Let your kids know that they can talk to you about anything without judgment. Have the sex talks. Provide the information. Open up uncomfortable and embarrassing subjects and address them from a biblical perspective. When your child has a question or concern, you must be their number one source of information, no matter how tough the topic, because if you’re not, the Internet will be.
Wrapping it up
In the end, there is no monitoring system or software based application that can stop kids from going online and doing what they want to do. It is an issue of character, and no technology can instill character in a child. That is our job.
The good news is that the advantage is ours. It is ours because we have an ability to do what computers can’t. We can be relational. And the most powerful lessons are taught through the context of relationships.
In many ways, we can be the better source. We can listen to them. We can laugh with them. We can cry with them. We can share our stories and relate to theirs. We can hold them. We can pray for them. We can love them.
And we must.