Protecting Our Children from the Dangers of the Internet, Part II

Last week, I wrote about three ways to protect our children from the dangers of the internet. Here are two more ways to keep our children safe and strong in our digital age.

  1. The Three Realities

I have observed with my own kids that when they are bored, they look to the computer for entertainment. While boredom can impel children to develop new interests, to make up new games, and to use their imagination and creativity, many parents assuage their children’s boredom with screen time because it’s an easy way to get their kids out of their hair. When this happens too frequently, children lose their ability to entertain themselves. They begin to rely more and more on the screen for entertainment. Clearly, this is a problem most parents are painfully aware of.

What was not so obvious to me was that many young people, especially teens, rely on technology as an escape from stress or loneliness, or use it as a way of satiating their hunger for affirmation. Just as boys are prone to being addicted to video games, girls are just as prone to being addicted to social media.  For girls, it’s all about being “liked”. They become obsessed with their social media popularity status.

The popularity contests of childhood are on-line now and revolve around how many “likes” you get. A low number of “likes” typically translates into low social status, and possible shaming and bullying. A high number of “likes” translates to popularity and the pressure to sustain your status. – Judith Johnson, Teens Addicted to Social Media

We need to help our children embrace reality instead of escaping into virtual reality. First, we need to make sure that when our kids are using technology, they’re using it for a specific purpose (ie. practicing times tables, doing research for a paper) and not just to kill time. Second, we need to be aware of our children’s emotional needs. Are they stressed or lonely? Do they feel rejected by peers or siblings? Are they hungry for affection, attention, or affirmation? Do they need help developing hobbies? As parents, we need to be in tune to our children’s emotional needs and respond to them, otherwise they will turn to technology to fill the voids.

Third, we need to show them that true reality is better than virtual reality. This means we need to help them build real, deep, and lasting relationships with family and friends.  At my daughter’s school, cell phones are to be kept in the lockers during school hours, and the girls are not even allowed to use their lap tops during lunch. This is to help them develop proper social interactions and real friendships.  We also need to help our kids develop rich and varied interests apart from technology. Something as simple as going on a hike can help our children realize how wonderful and beautiful God’s creation is.

It is no coincidence that teen depression has sky-rocketed along with the popularity of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and other social media outlets. Furthermore, studies like this and this have shown that people who spend less time on social media are happier than who spend more time on it.  Comparing one’s own imperfect reality to the polished and picture perfect “realities” of social media friends often sows the seeds of discontent, envy, and self-pity. Add to that the drama of receiving nasty comments, being “unfriended”, “unliked”, or excluded from a chat group, and you end up with some very unhappy teens (even adults!). We should point out to our teens that while social media may be gratifying in the short term, in the long term it often creates more discontent than happiness.

The best way to counteract the effects of virtual reality is to immerse ourselves in spiritual reality. In the busyness of everyday life and with the distractions of virtual reality, how easy it is to forget the presence of God in our lives! For example, how many of us, when encountering a problem or question, look for a solution on Google before praying about it? God before Siri! Let us strive to immerse ourselves and our families in the spiritual reality that God is ever-present  and that we can seek His help at any moment. The age-old Christian practice of living in God’s Presence is more vital than ever. With so many voices vying for our children’s attention, we need to teach our kids to listen to and for the voice of God. We need to fill our homes with holy images and teach our children to pray, not just asking for the stuff they want, but also to contemplate the life of Christ. As parents, we need to lead by example. So here’s a question worth asking:  of the three realities, virtual reality, physical reality, and spiritual reality, which one do we think about the most?

2. The Armor of God

Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  – Ephesians 6:11

A strong faith. A deep love for God. The desire to live a life of virtue and purity. Young people are capable of great holiness, and we owe it to them to help them do so. We hear so much negativity about teens that it is easy to expect most of them to be messed up and rebellious.  A lady once commented to me, “The only thing you can do with teenagers is to let them be and hope they don’t harm themselves or others.”  What kind of hope is that? Let them be? No way! We cannot be so passive about our youth when the devil is actively seeking to destroy their souls.  Our vocation as parents is to guide them, teach them, lead them to heaven, all the while looking at our teens with the optimism and idealism of St. John Paul II, who wrote:

“I repeat again today what I said at Santiago de Compostela: “Young people, do not be afraid to be holy!” Fly high, be among those whose goals are worthy of sons and daughters of God. Glorify God in your lives!”  message for the VI World Youth Day

“Humanity is in urgent need of the witness of free and courageous young people who dare to go against the tide and proclaim with vigour and enthusiasm their personal faith in God, Lord and Saviour.” – message for XVIII World Youth Day

Holiness is not only possible, it is necessary. A deep love for God and a strong desire to do His Will is the only thing that will protect our young people from the moral dangers of this world, and if not their holiness, at least our own. History has proven this time and again. From the time of the earliest Christians until now, young saints and martyrs have resisted and overcome tremendous pressures to conform to the world or give in to temptation. From our own day we can look to St. Maria Goretti, St. Dominic Savio, Bl. Isidore Bakanja, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, to name a few.

I know this sounds like pie-in-the-sky, especially when our teens are moody, difficult, or even entrenched in sin. Nonetheless, we have to try to help them become holy and never give up trying. We have to pray for their holiness and never lose faith. Young people are especially capable of holiness because they want to give their lives to something meaningful. Have you noticed that when teens are into something they are really into it? When they are passionate for a cause, there is almost no holding them back.

So if we want to give our children the armor of God, we need to make the religious formation of our children a priority.  We need to encourage our kids to persevere in a life of prayer and help them to frequent the sacraments. With many different responsibilities vying for our time and energy, this is not easy. Bringing our family to confession on a regular basis is often a challenge. Something always seems to crop us. But I have found that  when getting to confession seems especially difficult, those are the confessions when God’s grace is most palpable.

All of this makes parenting a tall order, doesn’t it?  Building relationships of trust and transparency, finding and maintaining wholesome friendships for our kids, establishing no-phone zones, balancing the three realities, and giving our children the armor of God requires a lot of dedication, sacrifice, and prayer.  It can seem overwhelming. But if we are faithful to our duties as Christian parents,  God will honor our efforts.  Let us always rely on God’s grace, trusting in His mercy and His plan for our children with confidence and hope.

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