Somebody thinks I ought to begin my day with porn. On Sunday I opened my inbox early in the day and found an image of a naked woman waiting for me there—not exactly how I wanted to begin my Lord’s Day. It was in an email that looked perfectly fine, but when I clicked on it, well, there she was. A millisecond later the email was in the spam folder and that was that. A very similar email was in my inbox on Monday and again the day after, though these times I clicked the spam button without opening them. There was nothing today, so I assume the spam filter has now begun to do its job. But, sadly, this is not unusual on the Internet. With all the benefits that come through it, we also face certain unwanted drawbacks.
A few years ago, I wrote a book on technology and since then have traveled around the world to speak on the subject. I’ve spoken personally with hundreds of people and have heard from many more through email and social media. The stories I hear are chilling. I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard of porn addictions, or at least porn struggles, that began with an email just like the one I received. It wasn’t that people were out looking for bad stuff, but that the bad stuff came looking for them. Once they saw it they became intrigued by it and once they became intrigued they found themselves captivated. I have heard of young children—very young children—who developed interests in dark things from dark places all because of something they stumbled upon when they were online. The sad fact is, as we use the Internet we will, at times, be faced with such things. So, too, will our children.
As parents, we know the importance of having the infamous birds and bees talk with our children. This is, and has always been, a parent’s responsibility. Today, before it’s time for the birds and bees talk, it’s time for the tech talk. As soon as our children begin to go online, we need to open an ongoing conversation about the dangers they may experience there, and to instruct them on how to react when they encounter those dangers.
The tech talk needs to include a few essentials, though the details will vary as the children grow older and begin to use more powerful apps and sites. As I see it, there are at least 3 categories of danger we need to discuss with our children.
The first category is privacy. Children may not understand the danger and foolishness of revealing personal information about themselves. This can happen in a number of ways, like having a username that contains the child’s name or age. Children naturally assume the people they meet online are also children (and especially so if this is what those people say about themselves). We, as adults, know not to take this for granted. Our children need to know what they must not say about themselves online. Included here would be the pressure among teens and young people to share nude or nearly-nude pictures of themselves as part of the new dating ritual.
The second category is bullying or other inappropriate interactions. This happened with one of my daughters not too long ago. She had been playing Minecraft with her siblings and somehow bounced into a different world. No sooner had she arrived than another user chatted with her and told her something inappropriate. She did not understand what he said or meant, but she did know enough to be offended and to come running for mom. Children need to know that they may face bullying, harassment, and other forms of inappropriate interaction when they use the Internet. They need to know they will face it, and they need to know how to respond to it.
The third category is pornography and other inappropriate content. Children need to know that these things exist and that at some point they will be exposed to them. They need to know that at some point they will receive an inappropriate email or they will see a picture in the sidebar of a website or something. Even if they don’t ever go looking for images of nudity and sexuality, it is very unlikely they will avoid them entirely. They need to know that these things exist and they need to know how you expect them to respond when they are exposed to it.
The fact is, parents need to teach their children how to behave online and parents need to know what their children are doing online. This is why I appreciate the new Circle device I reviewed a couple of months ago—it provides a simple means of offering protection that is sufficient for most families and households. It provides proactive and reactive ways to guard the eyes, hearts, and minds of your children. This is also why I put together the Porn-Free Family Plan which is intended to safeguard your family from this kind of harm. This plan does not require any special hardware, but does require a software subscription. (For homes with teens or adults known to struggle with porn, or for homes with teens who are adept at circumventing measures, I recommend both the Porn-Free Family Plan and Circle.)
I want to say this as clearly as I know how: If you neglect to train your children in their use of the Internet, you are failing in your parental responsibility. If you neglect to monitor what your children are doing online, you are neglecting your duty. If you are going to allow them to use the Internet—and I think you should so they can learn to use it under your care—you absolutely need to train them to use it well. To train them well you simply need to engage them in the tech talk.
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