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Guard and Guide Your Children Online

March 13, 2014

by Candice Watters

When I was learning how to drive, my dad reminded me regularly to “drive defensively.” He wanted me to be paying attention to what other drivers around me were doing, to be on the lookout for trouble and develop the reflexes to avoid it. Like my Dad teaching me defensive driving, I’m trying to teach our kids defensive surfing. There are sharks in the internet waters–lots of them! And unlike driving, where most of the people on the road are as eager as I am to avoid a car wreck, when you’re online, countless people are there precisely to try and wreck you. If you’re not careful, you can easily get snared by immoral, unprincipled, and even criminal people who stand to make bank at your–and your children’s–expense.

CO-049-2012-SSM-Winter-2012_webThe snake image here to the left makes my skin crawl. It’s from a column by Russell Moore about the folly of giving a child or teen unrestricted internet access. That fat, long snake slithering around the unsuspecting boy’s neck is chilling. And apt. Many parents are giving in to their children’s demands for mobile devices. He writes,

This is astounding not primarily because it militates against the higher standards of Christian parenting but because it militates against the natural ordering of human parenting itself.

Jesus, in describing the Fatherhood of God, told the crowd that no one, even being evil, would give his son a serpent when he asked for a fish (Matt 7:10). Why not? It’s because natural affection impels a father to seek to protect his child from something harmful. In this case, we see a culture, even among Christians sometimes, that’s quite willing to give a child a serpent, as long as he really wants it, and we think he’s trustworthy as a snake-charmer.

What if your son or daughter wanted to buy a venomous snake for a pet? What if they had birthday money to pay for it? What if they wanted to let it sleep with them at night? At what point would you say no? If your son or daughter has a straight-up, unaltered wi-fi enabled iPad, iPhone, or similar device, they have the equivalent of a snake. The factory settings won’t protect them from online danger. What should parents do?

Talk about it
The first line of defense against the dangers online is a strong relationship with your child. If you’re in the habit of talking about everything, adding this topic to the conversation will be natural. And it must be added.

“Don’t touch! Hot!” It’s one of the most repeated warnings in a home. We teach our kids from the time they’re babies about the danger of hot stoves. But we don’t stop cooking. There’s a right way to approach a hot stove or oven, and a way that leads to wounds and scars. So too the internet. How often have you told your child that the internet, or what’s on your phone, can burn her? Sadly the message most of our kids hear from us (whether by our words or our actions) is that this little device is fun! It’s an escape! It’s a distraction from life! They must surely wonder if it’s magic.

We parents must tell them the truth; tell them it’s dangerous. Yes, there are good things about mobile devices. They are useful. But they are not without danger and must be stewarded wisely. Tell them there are bad people who put bad pictures and bad articles and all sorts of tempting things online. This should be an ongoing conversation that gets more informative appropriate to your children’s ages.

Model wise use
Our kids will do what they see us doing. When you reach in for hot cookies, you use an oven mitt. They will too. When you browse the internet, you use a filter. Or do you? How about parental controls and age limits on apps purchases? How about restrictions on search terms. If you use the filters you want them to use, letting them know you do and your reasons why, they will more willingly accept the limits you set for them. They will see from how you act that you believe the warnings you give. If the internet is dangerous for them, it’s dangerous for you, too.

Countless parents put plastic covers over every outlet in the house in the unlikely event one of their children might poke a finger into the socket. How many times have I grumbled about the inconvenience of having to wrestle them loose so I can vacuum? What covers and childproofing protections are you putting on the media channels you bring into your home? They’re sometimes clumsy and inconvenient, but consider the fare you’re trying to block. There are a host of solutions for protecting your kids online. A search for parental controls and internet restrictions for your specific devices will produce a lot of options. Here are some of the things we do to “keep the outlets covered”:

Keep it public
Our kids’ bedrooms are technology-free zones. When phones, laptops, iPads and the rest are used in the family room, and the user is surrounded by parents and siblings, it’s a lot easier to resist temptation. Should something questionable pop up, it’s a lot easier to get help and to explain the “foot prints” captured in the history. Big families in small spaces are a blessing of built-in accountability.

Trust but verify
Speaking of the history, check it! It’s as simple as clicking the “history” tab at the top of the screen to reveal all the websites that have been visited (as well as those that the filters blocked). Let your kids know you check and tell them that if it’s missing–histories can be erased– you will assume the worst and cut off privileges. Period. A strong promise of supervision and consequences is a gift in the moments of temptation that will surely come.

Use password protections

  • On the babysitters’ phones and laptops. I ask all babysitters to restrict any and all internet-capable devices with lock screens and passwords. It gives me a chance to explain our concerns and standards and removes opportunities for trouble. This way there are no questions about what was viewed should the sitter leave her phone on the dresser or sofa.
  • On wi-fi. If your wi-fi device is password protected, your kids will need your help every time they want to go online. This way you know when they’re surfing, can monitor their time, and can be present with them. It also gives you the ability to say no. We should have times when it’s not ok to browse the internet. Unfettered, unrestricted time online is a burden no matter the age.
  • On iPhones. It’s a lot harder to block the internet on Apple’s mobile devices. But you can use the restrictions options in the “settings”. It gives you the ability to set age limits and ratings, and restrict explicit content for music, podcasts, iTunes, movies, TV shows, books, apps, Siri, websites and more. If questionable websites require a password, every time they bring you the device to unlock it you have another built-in opportunity for accountability and conversation about how they’re spending their time online. Consider requiring a password to download and delete apps. You can keep conversation going about what they’re interested in buying and using online. Remember, the goal is relationship.

Bless them with blackouts
Set limits; you are the parent. There should be times of day, and especially night, when the internet, text messaging and other media is unaccessible. For example, Verizon has tools for enabling parents to restrict their children’s phones at certain hours. Your kids may complain, but it is a gift to give them downtime and remove the possibility of being connected.

If your kids balk, tell them why you’re going to such great lengths to limit what they can access. If they counter, “Don’t you trust me?” be ready with a reply. Here’s a sample to get you thinking:

I don’t even trust myself! And I definitely don’t trust the devil, who seems good, but is looking for a chance to devour you. He comes as an angel of light. But he is a murderer! I certainly don’t trust the lecherous pornographers who want you to get hooked on their wares till your pockets are empty and your soul is dead. No. It’s not about trust. It’s about your life. And I will do whatever it takes to protect you. And to prepare you.

This is the job we face as parents in every age: to protect and prepare our children. Protect them from harm and prepare them for the day when they will leave our homes and be on their own, needing to be ready to protect themselves and the lives God will entrust to their care. In another day, it meant teaching them how to survive in the wild with brute strength and a straight shot. Kill to eat, or be eaten. Today, it means equipping them with convictions about guarding their hearts and minds in a digital world. Mobile devices are here to stay. Teaching them how to use them with integrity is survival.

We do something as a family every single time we drive somewhere. It’s not what you might think. Oh, we buckle our seat belts. But we don’t ultimately look to them to keep us safe. For that, we pray. We ask God’s blessing on the road and on whatever it is we’re heading out to do. We ask Him to use us as salt and light in a dark world and to guide our steps. It gives me peace to know I’m submitting our travels and activities to Him. It occurred to me while writing this that we should pray about staying safe online, too. One of the best conversations you can have with your kids about the dangers and opportunities online is in prayer. Whenever you have screen time, ask God to guard your eyes, to give you discernment, to make you a good steward of the media He’s provided and the time you’ve been given. There are so many things we can pray about in our internet and mobile device usage. And really, we ought to pray about everything, at all times. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 is a great place to start:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

Pray with them and for them. Of all you do, this is most important. Let them hear your heart cry to God for holiness, without which, we can not see Him. Purity flows from a heart set on Christ, and only happens when we are abiding in Christ, seeking our satisfaction in Him alone.

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