and what are they doing?
We've always been fairly free with the kids and computer use… sort of. There are time limits, they know where they're allowed to go and we have the passwords to any online accounts. Hanna has a blog that we carefully monitor(though she rarely updates it). They have both played on sites like Webkinz, and have played games on our Facebook accounts, often with us in the same room and watching.
We've drawn the limit, though, at letting them join social networking sites until they're at least 13. When you sign up for Facebook, you are agreeing that you are at least that old. I've hemmed and hawed about that a bit, thinking perhaps we could just limit Hanna's account to being friends only with family members and well, she's almost 13 and we'll keep a close eye on things…but ultimately, the rules are the rules. In a sense, I feel that letting her start an account before she's "legal" would really only teach her that it's okay to lie if it's something you really want.
She'll be waiting until next January, for those reasons and more.
One of the interesting things about being married to someone in youth ministry is that I have a lot of younger friends on Facebook. Because of that, I've given a lot of thought over the years to the benefits and the dangers of social networking sites. We've been hearing quite a bit over the last few years about young people and their sometimes rash online behavior, and I don't see that changing one bit. Tom started a Myspace account years ago and has had a Facebook account before any other non-college age person I know. In that time, I've seen some truly terrifying things put online by the many young people he's been friends with…
photographs that Hef wouldn't publish in Playboy…
comments about other people that still make my heart hurt…
joining groups and "liking" topics that are misguided at best…homophobic, hateful and disturbing at worst (I recently saw a group called "X should just die", referring to a local middle school student).
And now, I'm finding a whole new concern: Formspring.
On the surface, it seems sort of fun. Anyone can post questions, which you can choose to answer or not. And yet, just like Myspace and Facebook and all the other sites, I'm watching young people post and answer questions that could quite easily come back to haunt them in ways they could never imagine.
Because that's what it really comes down to…what they may see as innocent, fun interactions can cost them so very much once they're older.
A friend in Human Resources told me recently that the first thing they do when they're looking at a new hire is to do a little poking around online. It doesn't take more than a minute or two of looking to find social networking accounts, and it's surprisingly easy to get around privacy settings. Post semi-indecent photographs, profanity laden posts, join groups that look a little less than kosher…and finding a job just got more difficult.
I worry about those less than modest photos…the comments about sexuality…the seemingly innocent and flirty posts…and the way they're being taken by others out there. No matter how protected you may think they are, you never truly know who's seen them or who's stored them on their harddrive. Several years ago, our biggest online worry was about internet predators. Now, young people are sharing their innermost thoughts (and sometimes body parts) with abandon and no prompting at all.
I also wonder what this does to their testimony as a follower of Christ. I've always tried to be fairly intentional about what I do and don't share online, and try to bring glory to God in all of it. Profanity laden name calling and photos that would probably be blocked by online filters don't speak to me of a life lived seeking God's will, even by young people. Even in jest, it still colors other's view of them and the Savior we claim to follow.
And as I watch this happen over and over again, I wonder how many parents are aware of what their kids are doing online. Growing up, we had one computer in the living room and there was nowhere near the online presence like there is today. Phones, laptops, computers in bedrooms, nonstop texting…it can add up to a scary situation. I read an article in a recent Group magazine that the average teen spends 12 hours a day connected to media (internet, phone, iPod, etc), and an hour and a half of that time is spent texting. Some teens spend up to 16 hours a day connected.
My parents didn't have that issue. We were early to hop on the PC bandwagon (our first computer was a Tandy purchased from Radio Shack in 1985!). We had one phoneline and no cell phones throughout my entire high school years. My first cell phone was purchased in college and was larger than my purse. I still can't text.
As parents, we are daily wading into new floods and praying for guidance.
It truly is a lack of maturity and wisdom that is at the root of so much of this, but as parents it's our job to be the shield, filter and teacher that helps our kids get to a place that they can interact wisely with the ever-changing world around them. Certainly there are web content and accountability filters that can help, but ultimately…it comes down to accepting our God-ordained role as parents.
We trust our kids, yes, but that doesn't mean we throw them out to the wolves of a rabid society. According to a counselor I spoke with recently, being a little "over-involved" is far preferable to having to rebuild a young person who has been victimized by technology.
Limits, oversight, parenting…knowing what our kids are doing, where they're doing it and who they're doing it with – in real life or online – it's our responsibility. We don't have to do it alone, though. Talk to your child's youth pastor, teachers, counselors, other parents. Become aware of both the good and the bad the internet has to offer, and be vocal about it with your children.
This is a longer post than I'd intended (and I didn't even touch on one of the most touted web-based issues, pornography), but I'd like to know: where do you stand? What limits have you set? How aware are you of your children's online activities, or how aware do you plan to be? What resources have you found?