No parent wants to give his or her child unfettered access to the Internet. But neither is it realistic or wise to forbid any access whatsoever. How then do we plot a course that avoids these two extremes and yet maximizes their moral and spiritual safety?
First, educate yourself. Hiding your head in the sand, ostrich-style, is not an option for the serious Christian. You must get on the Internet and start learning. Begin with websites that cover technology at a popular level. One of the best is www.getnetwise.org . They have articles highlighting good sites with advice on how to avoid dangerous sites. They will cover things like phishing, scams, viruses, firewalls, filter and site-blocking software.
Second, educate your children. Explain that the Internet is like a jungle. It has many hidden dangers that we must learn how to avoid, or how to escape if we stumble upon them. We want to explore this exciting new world, but we want to return unscathed. If your children understand some of the dangers and consequences then they will be more willing to accept boundaries and controls.
The first fence we must erect is anti-virus software. I am astonished at how many people still risk their computers by not installing this software. Most of the paid services cost $50-100 per year. If you were told that you were certain to get a damaging virus in your body unless you took a free medicine, or one that cost $1 a week, what would you do?
Second, you should also install a firewall, mainly for security. Anti-virus software stops evil people getting evil things into your machine. A firewall stops evil people getting your personal information out of your machine. And with both anti-virus and firewall, you must keep them updated.
Third, set some time boundaries. The Internet and other technology can become highly addictive, and devour hours and hours of our time. Limit the frequency and length of use of technology. Again, you can get software to measure this and cut off devices after certain periods of time. Or you can use an Administrator password to make sure that no one can access the Internet or use the computer without you signing them in.
Fourth, set some site limits. When beginning with your children, you should probably start with one safe children’s site and only allow them to click and surf within that site. If they prove trustworthy and reliable, then you can add another. You can check their browsing activity using the browser history record.
Fifth, limit the amount of personal information that your children are permitted to divulge. I would suggest that you set a strict rule that they never use their real name, and certainly not their real address or phone number. Their email address should only be given to those you agree to.
Sixth, set bounds on what can be downloaded. Do not allow them to download anything without prior permission.
Having educated both yourself and your children, and having set up some boundaries and fences, the next stage is to mentor them as they use the Internet. It’s not enough to teach them some rules, and then walk away. You have to sit with them and surf with them. Guide them as they work within the boundaries. Ask them why they clicked on this and not that. Highlight and praise good use, while steering them away from what is harmful.
You cannot mentor them forever. So when you feel they are ready, you can begin to supervise from a bit of a distance. This is not the time for handing everything over and trusting them. Many parents do just that. 84% of parents rely on verbal agreements to ensure their children surf safely. I do not think that is at all wise or responsible. We need step back a bit but still supervise.
The first level of supervision is physical. Simply put, all screens (TV, computer, laptop, ipad, phones, etc) should be visible to others in the home. You could put your computers all in one fairly public place.
The second level of supervision is digital. There are many software programs that offer various ways to supervise our children. Some act like filters, stopping them accessing web pages containing certain trigger words like “sex,” “casino,” etc. Others will block websites belonging to certain categories you can specify. You can also name certain sites you do not want accessed. You may want to block Instant Messaging or chat services. Other programs will monitor usage and send detailed reports to you either in real-time or weekly.
As your children grow older you can probably reduce the level of physical supervision and rely more on digital supervision. However, please don’t rely on digital supervision alone. It is not fool-proof and tech-savvy kids can sometimes find ways of getting round it.
It’s very tempting to get to this point, and then hand it all over to the software to do its job. However, I think it is important to keep communication going. Sit down with your kids and ask them about their online experiences. Without threat of repercussions, ask them if they have anything they wish to share with you. Any great websites they would recommend? Any websites that worried them? Did they make any mistakes? Maybe sit down with the Internet Accountability report and talk it over with them. Encourage them if they are getting good ratings, and talk to them about what may be causing alarm bells to ring. Let them know that you are still involved and concerned.
This step-by-step training program assumes that as you progress, you are doing the earlier steps less and less. As our kids grow older, and hopefully more mature and trustworthy, we can step back more, and let them become their own filter and blocker. We are preparing them to “leave father and mother” and “cleave to their wife/husband.” However, I do believe that all of us should have an accountability partner for our technology use. So you should strongly advise them to use Accountability Software and have the report sent to their future husband or wife, or their Pastor, or a strong Christian friend.
Perhaps the most powerful of all the steps is to model godly use of technology. Show as well as tell. By your example show them good time management. Demonstrate that you too are accountable to your husband or wife, via physical and digital supervision.
New hearts for new technology
Ultimately however, we must pray for our children to have new hearts in order to rightly handle the new technology. Our children are born with depraved hearts. They will therefore love darkness rather than light. They are going to be attracted to the dark side of the internet. So we must pray for them to be born again. We must pray that God would replace the love of darkness with love for the light.
Only then will they turn their backs on evil communications, which corrupt good manners. Only then will they want to think on whatsoever things are good, true and of good report. We can train, legislate, hover, etc., but above all we must pray that our children would ultimately live and obey not out of fear of the law but out of love for Christ.
Then they will pray more than Twitter. They will seek the face of Christ in the book of books, and fill their space with the one who fills all space.
For further information on this Seven-Step training program you can view the God’s Technology DVD and Study Guide.
David Murray is professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He blogs at HeadHeartHand and you can follow him on Twitter @DavidPMurray.