In the 60's, Christian parents were outraged over the "shocking" youth culture. However, parents today may wish for the "good old 60's," because on all levels, kids today are into far worse stuff, thanks mostly to the Internet.
Who would have ever thought that the Internet would beat out television and movies as the most time-consuming form of entertainment for teens? It has! 96% of all teens in the U.S. daily access the Internet, averaging more than four hours online every day. It now affects every family in some way, since it can be accessed in many more ways than it once could, and it is being used by teens in ways that may shock some less Internet-savvy parents. So, it is especially important for parents to know how their kids are interacting via digital media today, while also understanding that completely removing it isn't always the best move.
The Breadth of the Problem
A lot of good can be gleaned from the Internet and from use of today's digital tools like cell phones. The Internet is a powerful research and teaching tool. It has become the main source for news, new music and it will eventually become the main source for books and movies. Through cell phones, parents are able to keep in touch with their kids wherever they are, and kids can text each other. In fact, the average teen sends over 3,000 text messages to their family and friends every month -- an important part of their social interaction. And through video tools like Skype and social networking sites, teens and extended families can connect with each other in important and extraordinary ways.
But along with all the good, comes the bad...
Pornography and suggestive invitations to participate in pornography are prevalent on the Internet and not easy to miss. Web surfers see inappropriate pictures or videos even if they aren't necessarily looking for them and there is no cost barrier, since millions of photos are provided free. While the porn industry has been around since the beginning of painting and photography, the Internet and digital cameras on cell phones are making it so that just about anyone can become involved in uploading their own sexualized photos as well. As a result, no age group is more involved in digital pornography than teenagers. It has become so widespread and accepted in their culture, kids no longer see anything wrong with it.
What gets the most attention on the Internet are the images with the greatest shock value. In other words, the most shockingly immoral or dangerous videos or photos are the most sought for and passed around. Kids surf the Internet seeking titillating images to pass on to their friends. And many are making and uploading their own photos and videos. As a result, every form of experimentation, from drugs to sex are openly discussed, taught, demonstrated and encouraged on the Internet today.
When kids get online and participate in what they would never think of doing in person I call it "digital courage." As a result, guys are getting a warped image of girls, what girls want from boys, and what boys should expect from girls. Girls are given messages that if you don't present yourself in a sexualized way, then you won't get noticed. And both sexes are getting warped ideas about same-sex relationships. It's a culture fueled by permissive messages that make it okay to be blatant about sex and silly to care about modesty. And what's happening online, in a fantasy world, is making its way into the real world for these kids when they spend hours engulfed in it daily.
I don't think parents quite understand the tremendous amount of pressure that this emphasis on seduction places especially on impressionable teen and pre-teen girls. They are forced to choose between doing what is socially acceptable in their own circles and what is acceptable among their family and church. More often than not, the social pressure to fit in outweighs their desire to be modest and follow what they've been taught. Girls who've grown up in church may therefore begin to present themselves in ways that are not in line with the values they have learned.
Beyond the moral influences, kids fail to understand the potential practical consequences for what they carelessly post online. For instance, the United States government recently announced that every word "tweeted" on the second largest social networking site, Twitter, is being recorded for permanent public storage by the Library of Congress. It means that messages and images can be recalled many years from now. Why is that an issue? For one thing, many employers and some colleges now research what applicants have been saying or posting online, since what they find there is a good indicator of the motivations and attitudes of the applicant. Educational and career choices may be hindered by the careless words or pictures your teen is posting.
Solutions No More
It used to be that filters on your home computer could be used to block inappropriate sites, but that's an incomplete solution today. Parents have a bigger issue on their hands now, with the advent of wireless and handheld computers, iPads, iPhones, PDA's and smart cell phones. Kids can get online just about anywhere, not just at home where it can be monitored. Not only are there more wireless ways to connect, 77% of kids access the Internet at school or the library, where there may be no filters at all.
According to Pew Research, one third of all teens use the digital cameras on their own cell phones or computers to send sexual photos or "send sexual texts -- a practice called "sexting." Even if your teenager isn't "sexting" themselves, photos and sexualized comments from other kids are being passed to them.
What's a Parent to Do?
Parents need to realize that it is becoming nearly impossible to keep kids away from the bad stuff on the Internet. That's why they should begin talking to their children in the tween years (by age 11) about the inappropriateness of pornography. Talk in age-appropriate terms, being careful not to spark interest in it or to make it appear that all kids are involved in it. Revisit the topic periodically, since your teen's thoughts and motivations will change over time. Regularly ask questions in your one-on-one weekly meeting, like, "What so you think is appropriate and inappropriate to see or talk about on the Internet or in texts." Be very wise in the way that you approach it so that you don't push your child away. Listen more than you speak and never embarrass them.
Your child is likely on MySpace, Twitter or Facebook - the largest social networking sites -- so you better make sure you are on there as well. There's nothing like knowing that your parent may see what you say or the photos you post. It keeps them in line. Tell them that they must "friend" you, so you can monitor what they and their other friends are posting. But don't respond to their posts online or otherwise bring embarrassment to them in front of their friends. Just use it for monitoring and discuss what you find there with them personally.
Getting It Under Control
It is important to keep in mind that all rules for use of the Internet in your home must be adapted to the age of your child and his or her responsibility level. With that being said, here are some tips for parents to get the Internet under control:
1. PASSWORD POLICY: Make it a home policy that parents must know all electronic passwords. This gives access if needed. Have access to their social networking account for your monthly monitoring (or don't allow them on any network site if they can't be responsible). Add yourself to their "friend" list to be able to roam around on their site. Make sure their profile is "private," so that only their approved "friends" can communicate with them. A little monitoring goes a long way. If they refuse, disconnect their Internet access and texting on their cell phone.
2. TRACKING: Take advantage of parental controls offered by wireless communication companies, but also install silent tracking software and let it do its work to help you know what sites they are visiting. Most kids learn to quickly get around blocking software and the so-called "parental controls," but they cannot usually defy software that tracks their every keystroke.
3. ACCESS: Keep Internet accessible devices out of your teen's bedroom. Keep them out in an open area with the monitor visible from various angles. Don't allow access unless you are in the room, and put a limit on the amount of time they may spend on the Internet. If you have wireless in your home, shut it down after hours and when your teen is alone at home. If your teen has a smart phone that can access Internet sites or receive photos, then have them turn it over to you before going to bed.
4. REVIEW: On their computer, periodically view their Internet "browser history" and follow the trail. You will be amazed; software is available to secretly record their every move if needed, especially if you think they are accessing the Internet overnight or when you are not home.
5. READ: Tell your teen that for the privilege of texting on their cell phone, you will periodically ask to see that they've been texting. Tell them that they mustn't erase text messages, or that will be an assumed admission of guilt. Then, do unannounced spot checks several times per month. Don't use it as an opportunity to seek proof of other offences, but simply spot check for inappropriate messages or photos. Then, talk to your teen about what you find.
Find out who they are chatting with online. Many times, the people on the other end aren't who they portray themselves to be, so keep your teen out of the open chat rooms. Be especially careful if you think your teen may be interacting with an Internet stalker. If you find anyone you don't know asking to meet your teen boy or girl alone somewhere, immediately report it to the police.
6. LOGIN: Get on their social networking home page and look around. Look at their friends. See what they're saying. Look at what is being said to them. Go visit their friend's pages. You might just find out something about your child that would be a perfect intro into some great conversations.
7. TALK, AND THEN TALK SOME MORE: If you find something inappropriate on a cell phone or computer, privately talk to your child. Make it something you agree to both get together to talk about periodically. Don't accuse them and assume the worst. All teens -- especially boys -- are curious about adult things and they want to see what their friends are suggesting they see. So, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. You'll be amazed how your child will respond when you speak with a gentle spirit, not one of condemnation and guilt. You'll be glad you found the issue before it got too big in the child's life. Catching it early will often prevent it from becoming a life-long addiction.
I believe in privacy. I believe in trust. But I also believe in "being there" to be the parent God has called me to be. If I see anything that concerns me, then it must be brought into the open with the teen, shared, and discussed. I tell kids that I sleep with one eye open. I'm always looking for something that has the potential to destroy a relationship with them and with God. I tell them that I'm looking out for them because I don't want any unwelcome thing to intrude into their life.
It's Up to You
Monitoring your teen's Internet use can be a lot of added work, but I believe that parents should go to no end to find out what their teen is into and who they are connecting with online, especially if it begins affecting their attitudes and behaviors. That portal to the outside world needs monitoring. After all, would you let just anyone, even a registered sex offender or pornographer, into your house to befriend your teen? Of course not. The hold that an outsider may have on your teenage girl, or the hold that pornography may have on a teenage boy, may ultimately harm both them and your family. Your teen will be too embarrassed to reveal it, so it's up to you to find out and take action.
Helping your teen become more discerning in how they surf or text on the Internet is now more important than older tactics of simply blocking teens from it. They'll find other ways to access the Internet, whether at school or in their friend's homes or using their friend's cell phone or laptop computer. So, teaching them to be discerning will give kids the skills they need in a culture where it is nearly impossible for a parent to completely block them from accessing it.
Moms and dads all over the country express great frustration to me with how to positively encounter their teen living in a seductive, visually oriented, and digitally bombarded world. The answer to their questions is always that they have to do something, rather than doing nothing. Online and texting parameters must be set, communicated, and adhered to. And it must be a set of parameters that are monitored, revisited and discussed often. Remember this...rules without monitoring aren't rules at all, just blind suggestions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight (http://www.heartlihtministries.org), a residential program for struggling adolescents located in East Texas. His radio programs can be heard at http://www.parentingtodaysteens.org.