Protecting our Kids from the Dangers of the Internet, Part I

With two teenagers in the house (how did that happen so fast?), I have become increasingly concerned about the dangers and effects of the internet and social media on our young people. I’m particularly worried about pornography, although internet, video game and social media addictions are also a concern. Have you seen any of the latest statistics on children/teens and the internet?

Here are some stats from Covenanteyes.com

  • 9 out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls are exposed to pornography online before the age of 18.
  • The first exposure to pornography among boys is 12 years old, on average.
  • 83% of boys and 57% of girls are exposed to group sex online.
  • 71% of teens have done something to hide their online activity from their parents.
  • 28% of 16-17-year-olds have unintentionally been exposed to pornography online.

These stats are unsettling, aren’t they? We need  to protect our kids from the dangers of the internet. But with smart phones and iPads being ubiquitous, the task seems almost impossible. Of course, we need to use parental controls and put filters on our routers. (Here is a great list of resources.) However, even if we have the most sophisticated parental controls and filter systems, our kids are still in danger. After all, our children have friends, and their friends (will) have smart phones, apple watches, iPads, and laptops. And who knows how protected their gadgets are?

Parental controls,  filters, and monitoring tools.  They are a no brainer.

But we can’t stop there.

The trash that’s out there on the internet trying to infiltrate our children’s lives boils down to one thing: spiritual warfare. The devil is after our children. He’s using technology to pry into our homes and into their minds and hearts to ensnare them into his evil ways. That’s the reality. Apps and filters alone cannot and will not protect our children. Our kids need emotional and spiritual armor to give them the strength to battle the temptations that will come their way.

Here are three ways to build that armor:

  1. Trust and Transparency.

We need to build relationships of trust and transparency with our children. That was one of the main messages I heard at a Parental Guidance conference put on by Regeneration Ministries. Our kids need to be able to trust us, not fear us. They need to trust that when they encounter pornography or fall into serious sin, we will not flip out on them. They need  to trust that they can confide in us and look to us for support and advice without feeling judged or criticized. We should not take this trust for granted. Rather, we have to work to earn it. Let’s decide now that if or when they fall into trouble, we will seek to understand and support them rather than condemn them. We can begin now by controlling our anger over smaller annoyances and by trying to be understanding.

We also need to teach our kids to be transparent. The devil lurks in secrecy. Make it a family policy that no one does internet searches alone. Computers and iPads should be used in common living areas. Teach your children to shut the computer immediately and tell you right away if he/she stumbles upon pornography or anything that feels wrong. Think about it: if a stranger tried to kidnap your child, you would want him/her to fight, scream, and flee. Let your kids know that pornography is the devil’s an attempt to kidnap their souls. When they encounter it, they need to come to you for protection.

2. Friends Worth Keeping

When I entered highschool, my parents gave me some wise advice: Choose your friends. Don’t let them choose you. Meaning: Find friends whom you  think will help you get to Heaven and stick with them. Don’t let kids who do not share your values “befriend” you and drag you down.

Peers have a tremendous influence on our children, and this influence only gets stronger as our kids get older. Friends impact what our kids want to wear, what activities they choose to do, what games they want to play, what books and movies they want to consume, etc. Thus, we need to help our children develop friendships with kids who will influence them for the good as well as steer our children away from those who might have a negative influence.

St. Don Bosco, who worked with the street boys of Turin in the 18th c. wrote:

Fly from bad companions as from the bite of a poisonous snake. If you keep good companions, I can assure you that you will one day rejoice with the blessed in Heaven; whereas if you keep with those who are bad, you will become bad yourself, and you will be in danger of losing your soul.

So, let’s not settle for friendships of convenience, allowing our children to spend long hours with kids in the neighborhood even though their influence is questionable. Rather, let us seek out families who share our values and foster good friendships, even if it means more planning and driving on our part.  Helping our children choose wholesome friends is an important way of guarding their hearts.

3. No-Phone Zones

As I wrote in an earlier post, we need to help our children develop the virtue of temperance, especially in the use of technology.  One way to do this is to set up no-phone zones, which are times and places where the use of smart phones and tablets are not used; rather, they are all placed in their docks or in a basket. Dinner is a time when family members should focus on communicating with each other. Phones are a big distraction when children are studying. And many teens stay up too late playing or texting on their phones.  This often results in poor-quality sleep  linked to a decline in mental health, such as depressed moods and declines in self-esteem and coping ability. So, dinner time, homework time, and bed time are important no-phone zones. In all fairness, we should have these rules apply to the entire family (parents, too!). Thus, we set an example of temperance.

By having no-phone zones, we are also teaching our children other things: First, we are teaching them to be patient and to control their curiosity. They can wait a little before checking email. They don’t have to answer every text message right away. We are also teaching our children that family relationships are more important than virtual ones.  And, we are modelling to them that smart phones are not another appendage. They need not fear being separated from their phones. Think that’s funny? Nomophobia is a real phenomena:

The term nomophobia is composed of no (negation), mo (cell phone), and phobia (irrational fear). It refers to the irrational and uncontrolled fear of being separated from one’s cell phone. By extension, this now applies to the fear of not being able to access emails, electronic messages, voicemail, and social networks. Nomophobia also applies to someone who cannot stop checking his email or engaging in social media activity. This interaction can take place anytime and anywhere, even if the person is not necessarily expecting an important message; there is an uncontrolled need for connections.

According to the consulted sources, it is estimated that 50 to 75 percent of cell phone users suffer some degree of nomophobia. – Alfred Domingo, Digital Families

Finally, no-phone zones at night help our children avoid near occasions of sin. A teen-age boy who always takes his phone to bed at night opens himself to the temptation of surfing the internet and stumbling across porn, or, even worse, searching for it in a moment of curiosity or weakness. Yes, our boys are good kids, and we’d like to think that they would never purposely look for porn. However, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Mt 26:41). In moments of stress, anger, sadness, or rebellion, our kids can easily fall.

So let’s get into the habit of using the screen in moderation and with self-control. This way, we help our kids develop healthy habits with regards to using technology.

Next week I’ll talk about the two most important ways of protecting our kids. Stay tuned!

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