What every parent should know about the Internet
This article is the first in a series:
Across the world, an estimated 1 billion people now have access to the Internet.2 Put differently, nearly one sixth of the world’s population potentially have access to anything posted on a web page.
So what’s the problem, you may ask? In March 2008, British psychologist Dr Tanya Byron published the result of a government-commissioned study (the Byron Report) that was tasked to ‘undertake a review of the evidence on risks to children’s safety and well-being of exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material on the internet … and to make recommendations for improvements or additional action’.3
The report concluded that: ‘the Internet cannot be made completely safe’.4
In 2006 there were over four million pornography web sites, 100,000 of which offered illegal child pornography.5 The popular American magazine Christianity Today suggests that ‘seventy per cent of American men aged 18-34 view Internet pornography once a month’.6
The same article goes on to explain that churches are not immune to the problem: ‘One evangelical leader was sceptical of survey findings that said 50 per cent of Christian men have looked at porn recently. So he surveyed his own congregation. He found that 60 per cent had done so within the past year, and 25 per cent within the past 30 days’.
Time magazine, in a recent article entitled ‘Adultery 2.0’, went on to explain that there are now web sites developed with slick applications (apps) for the iPhone and Blackberry aimed at ‘tech savvy adulterers wary of leaving tracks on work or home computers’.
‘Cheating has never been easier’ is the claim of AshleyMadison.com, a personal site designed to facilitate extramarital affairs.7 The list goes on, with repeated warnings to be wary of Internet crime, identity theft and paedophiles, among others. No wonder most parents wonder if the social networks their children spend so much time on are safe?
Should they even let their children use mobile phones, given recent police warnings concerning the practice of ‘sexting’, where young people send explicit and indecent photos to each other using their mobile phones?8
What should we do? Is there a biblical response? How do parents cope with these problems when there is such a gap between the young Internet savvy generation and the majority of parents?
This article will present an overview of the issues involved, with subsequent articles exploring key areas, such as social networks, internet addiction, virtual relationships, gambling, pornography and blogging. These things are shaping the lives of so many, and we need to know what is happening and how to deal with resulting issues in our families, church and society.
Is there good in the Internet also? Yes, there is! It has created untold opportunities to witness to people across the world. We now can bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to a billion people, all without leaving our office or home!
At a recent conference, Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, USA, commented that ‘the Internet has opened an opportunity for an entirely new way of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations of the earth’.9
Mars Hill is an example of a church that makes full use of these new opportunities. It even boasts its own iPhone app [application], from which you have access to the church’s full media library, sermons on various topics and so on. Hymns, multiple versions of the Bible, and articles on just about every conceivable theological topic are all available on the Internet at the click of a button.
Anyone can sit at a computer and find out about almost any church or Christian organisation anywhere in the world. Missionaries and para-church organisations have been able to cut their costs drastically by using e-mail and web sites to inform their supporters. An evangelical conservative web site (sermonaudio.com) boasts thousands of sermons from MacArthur to Spurgeon (read with an American voice!), with hundreds being added every week.
There are blogs, discussion forums, videos and Christian courses online. The list goes on. You can ‘tweet’ with other Christians, create Facebook events, or talk ‘face to face’ using a video webcam with a friend or missionary anywhere in the world. At its heart, the Internet is a communications tool, and the good news is all about communicating to people the wonderful truths of Jesus Christ.
Before we go much further, we must demystify the Internet. What is the Internet, then? At its core, it is very simple (though there are a lot of complex technologies supporting it). Think of the postal system. You write a letter (or worse receive a bill!). Someone puts a piece of paper in an envelope, addresses it, and the postal system delivers it to your mailbox.
Now, suppose for instance that you wanted to buy a new shirt from a company located somewhere in the country. You could write them a letter giving information about your size and preferences. Then, they might in return mail you a photograph of one of their shirts.
Perhaps, when you saw the picture, you decided you did not like the look of it and wrote back asking for another shirt. They then send you a picture of a different shirt; and so on. Clearly, using the postal system this way is extremely slow and inefficient. This is why most companies simply send out a catalogue with all their products in it.
However, this example illustrates how the Internet works. Without going into technical details, suffice it to say that every computer has an individual address (just like the postal system). The Internet acts like an electronic version of the postal service, delivering information one page at a time. It’s just that it is much, much faster!
The pages (or other information such as sound or video files) are held on a web server and delivered according to what each user requests. Typically, the pages are navigated using search parameters or links that can be ‘clicked’ on the computer screen (called hyperlinks).
Of course, the best place to find out about the Internet is … on the Internet! It is its speed and ease of use that has created such a pervasive network of interconnected computers, companies and people.
On 2 September 2009 the Internet turned 40 years old!10 However, as the graph below clearly shows, it is likely most people started using it no more than 5-10 years ago.11 The transition from paper and telephone to instant online communications, e-mails, web searches, and social networks was slow and gradual.12 Yet, it could be argued that the impact of the change is as significant as the printing press, television, car and air travel.
It affects how we relate to one another, commercial infrastructure, availability of information, how we learn, and where we get our news from. And there is no going back. The ‘genie is out of the bottle’!
How should Christians react? Clearly there is no mention of the Internet in the Bible. But the Bible is not a book that is out of date. The Word of God has not suddenly lost its relevance. Rather, it lays down principles that are inviolate - guidance for all of life and all of time.
The Bible speaks of self control (2 Peter 1:6); of our weakness and the ease with which we fall into sin (James 1:14); of redeeming the time (Ephesians 5:15-16); and of making the most of every opportunity (Galatians 6:10).
For example, the Internet can be addictive, and even lead to the splintering of the family, particularly where there are multiple computers in a household. Each member of the family spends time individually with their ‘online friends’, chatting, e-mailing, or posting on a social network.
To counter this, why not try setting aside one evening a week as a ‘family night’ when all members of the family engage in an activity together? Activities may, for example, include playing a game, taking a walk, or many of the myriad of other things that families do together. Attendance, however, is strictly mandatory!
In the next article will look at the way we use the Internet to communicate.
To be continued
7. Time magazine, July 20, 2009.
9. The comment was made in Nov. 08 at the New Frontiers conference in Brighton, to which Driscoll was invited.
11. I have been working with the Internet and its associated technologies for much longer than that, having first come across the Internet some 30 years ago while studying Computer Science at university - it was then a very new field.
12. The leading web browser - Microsoft’s Internet Explorer debuted on August 16, 1995.
© David Clark