Danger online: how churches can help parents protect kids
Babies today seem to be born with smartphones in their hands instead of silver spoons in their mouths. Many children in the U.S. are as comfortable with technology as their parents were with riding bikes; but they are vulnerable to dangers that can be much more serious than a bump on the head, and protection is more complicated than simply wearing a helmet.
Churches can help parents, grandparents and caretakers who have limited technological knowledge by equipping them with the resources they need to help set up Internet safety guards.
Consider incorporating the following suggestions into a series of classes or a one-day seminar offered to parents and caregivers in your church or community.
Keeping kids safe online
Unrestricted Internet usage presents a number of risks to children, including:
- Inappropriate and unwanted content
- sexting and its repercussions
- child predators
- harassment, and cyber-bullying
- Internet gambling and gaming addictions
- copyright infringements (illegal music and movie downloads)
- encouragement to cheat, such as term papers and essays for sale online
Teach parents practical methods of Internet protection.
According to a 2011 study, more than 60 percent of parents do not use online parental controls or filtering software, and almost 70 percent of teens have taken active steps to hide their online activity from their parents. Many do this regularly. While there are methods of protection, many parents don't know how to find or use them. Help caregivers learn how to use security hacks to protect their family. Ask them to bring some of their own devices to the class, and then walk them through steps on how to: set passwords, use built-in safety modes on smart devices and update Internet safety and browser settings.
You can also introduce them to the variety of Christian filtering companies and software that are available (often with customer support). Some filtering companies offer online tutorials you can use to help parents better understand their role in protecting their children.
Decrease screen time
How much is too much of a good thing? Medline Plus, a service of the National Institutes of Health, actually recommends that children older than age 2 limit their screen time to two hours per day. Screen time includes any activity in which a child is in front of a screen: computer use, gaming, television and so forth. Encourage parents to take practical steps to promote good Internet habits:
- Set guidelines on where computers and other Internet-ready devices may be kept and used.
- Define times and places where Internet and electronic devices cannot be used — when driving, at the dinner table, after "lights out," in the bathroom and so forth.
- Limit screen time and unplug the Internet or set times for it to turn off automatically.
Point out positive resources on the web.
Familiarize parents with the dangers, but also the benefits of Internet use. The Internet is full of educational and entertaining choices. The key is to make sure the choices are safe for children. Demonstrate how to locate:
- devotional guides for children
- specific church websites and resources available for youth
- homework help, online libraries and other educational help
- appropriate games, movies and social sites for children.
Direct them to sites such as Common Sense Media, which offers media and book reviews written specifically with children in mind. They also offer a vast array of information to help parents make informed decisions about the Internet and other parenting decisions.
Learn how to share your bookmark folders.
Create several bookmark folders for online safety, parenting and other ministry topics. When people need information about those topics, you can easily share your research. Just export the bookmark folders from your browser and share it with people so they can import them into their browser of choice. The following links are Google searches you can use to learn how to import or export bookmarks in Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari. This process is actually pretty easy and only requires a few steps.
Encourage parents to recognize when they need help.
Despite best efforts, the odds are that the children in your church will have at least one negative experience with the Internet. Review the FBI's signs that your child may be at risk. Remind parents that they aren't alone. Encourage them to monitor Internet use and ask questions. Remind them not to be afraid to get help if they discover that their children have been negatively affected. Provide them with resources that provide the help they might need, including names and numbers of recommended counselors or pastoral care-providers.
As with most parenting issues, being proactive is much easier than being reactive. The earlier you talk to your children about Internet safety and establish boundaries, the more problems you can avoid and the easier it will be to enforce the rules.