What every parent should know about the Internet
by David Clark
Part 1 - Overview
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the Internet has become an indispensible part of modern business life. Not only is it a business tool, it also reaches many homes both in the UK and across the world. In Europe 390 million people have access to the Internet in their homes – roughly half of the population.(1) In the UK that number rises to nearly 71% of households, and 74% in North America. Across the world, an estimated 1 billion people now have access to the Internet.(2) Put differently, something close to one sixth of the world’s population potentially have access to anything that is posted on a web page.
What’s the problem?
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 4 million pornography web sites, 100,000 of which offered illegal child pornography.(5) The popular American magazine “Christianity Today” suggests that “seventy percent of American men ages 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 skeptical of survey findings that said 50 percent of Christian men have looked at porn recently. So he surveyed his own congregation. He found that 60 percent had done so within the past year, and 25 percent 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 the 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 personals site designed to facilitate extramarital affairs.(7)
The list goes on, with repeated warnings to be wary of Internet crime, Identity Theft and pedophiles 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 the 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, blogging, and others. These things are shaping the lives of many around us, and we need to know both what is happening and how to deal with the issues, in our families, church and culture.
Is there good also?
Yes there is! The Internet has created untold opportunities to witness to people across the world. As was noted previously, 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 ably captured some of this when he 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 seeks to make full use of these new opportunities. It even boasts its own iPhone app (short for 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 organization anywhere in the world. Missionaries and para-church organizations have been able to drastically cut their costs by using email and web sites to inform their supporters. An Evangelical conservative website (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.
What is the Internet?
Before we go much further, we must demystify the Internet. 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, addressed 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 them some information about your size and your preferences. Then, they might in return mail you a photograph of one of their shirts. Perhaps, when you looked at the picture, you decided that you did not like the look of that particular shirt and wrote back to them asking for another type of shirt. They then send you another picture of a different shirt, and so on. Clearly, using the postal system in this way would be extremely slow and inefficient. This is why most companies would simply send out a catalogue with all their products in it. However, the 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 a page at a time. It’s just that it is 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 the speed and ease of use that has created such a pervasive network of interconnected computers, companies and people.
How did it happen?
On September 2, 2009 the Internet turned 40.(10) However, as the graph below clearly shows, it is likely that most people started using it no more than 5 to 10 years ago.(11) The transition from paper, and telephone to instant online communications, emails, web searches, and social networks was imperceptible, a slow gradual transition.(12) Yet, it could be argued that impact of the change is likely to be as significant as the network of roads built by the Romans, the printing press, the advent of radio, television, the car or air travel. It is not just about how long we might spend on the computer as opposed to watching television. It affects how we relate to one another, the whole commercial infrastructure, availability of information, how we learn and where we get the news (among other impacts). Most importantly, there is no going back. The ‘genie is out of the bottle’, and there is no putting it back in again…
Internet users per 100 inhabitants 1997-2007 (13)
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 the Bible not only gives clear commands, it also lays down principles that are inviolate, guidance for all of life and all of time. The Bible speaks of self control (2 Pet 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 making the most of every opportunity (Galatians 6:10). In this series of articles, it is planned to seek to apply these principles to how we approach and use the Internet, and to look at dangers as well as the opportunities that it creates. The next article will look at the way we use the Internet to communicate. From email to texting, video calls to instant messages concluding with practical, helpful and positive advice.
The Internet can not only be addictive, in the same way as other activities, but a particular danger is that it could lead to a splintering of the family unit, particularly where there are multiple computers in a household. Each member of the family spends time individually with their ‘online friends’, chatting, emailing, or posting on a social network. To counter this, why not try setting aside one evening a week as a ‘family night’ where 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 can do together. Attendance, however, is strictly mandatory!
(3) http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmhansrd/ cm080327/wmstext/80327m0001.htm
(5) http://internet-filter-review.toptenreviews.com/ internet-pornography-statistics.html#anchor5
(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
(10) See http://www.sfgate.com/ cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2009/08/30/financial/f102244D87.DTL
(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
(13) (Source: ITU)