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"Keeping our Kids Safe Online"

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By Theo Nickolakis

A mother recently called to seek advice about an issue with one of her teenage children.  Her daughter had been acting very strangely for two days.  When her mother confronted her about the issue, the daughter replied, “Mom, you know I’m without my computer while it’s being fixed.  I can’t talk to my friends.  I don’t know what I am going to do.”

This response is likely typical of most teens.  Today, over 90% of American teens age 12 to 17 use the Internet.  For teens, computers, cell phones, and the Internet are not simply “devices”.  Rather, these devices form an integral part of a teen’s social fabric and how they interrelate with one another.  Divorce today’s wired teen from their computer or cell phone and you effectively cut them off from their social network.

Yet just because computers are perceived as something children know how to use does not mean that they are appropriately equipped to handle the challenges these technology tools present.  Kids may use these tools every day, but the real issue is how these tools impact their lives and social interactions.

Church’s view on the dangers of technology

Some have asked whether or not all this technology and the Internet is a good thing.  His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios and the other hierarchs of SCOBA touched upon this issue in March 2006 through a powerful pastoral letter to every Orthodox Christian community in the United States.  In this letter, the SCOBA hierarchs warned communities about the dangers inherent on the Internet and today’s mobile devices.  They appropriately reflected the Church’s view on technology by saying, “The technology itself is not dangerous.”  Rather, the danger stems from the malicious perversion of technology and the lack of safeguards.

Unfortunately the burden of protecting our youth and teens has fallen squarely upon the shoulders of parents.  Parents are the ones who must act as vanguards and take an active and proactive role in their children’s online endeavors.  Technology is never a substitute for good parental supervision.

Online Activities Parents Need to Watch out for:

Kids today are engaged in a number of online activities including email, instant messaging, social networking, and virtual reality entertainment.  If left unmonitored, some of these activities are potentially dangerous.  Web sites and technologies that parents should be especially wary of include:

1)    MySpace.com, which has been used by online predators and has no age verification system: MySpace and similar sites allow for the creation of online profiles and encourage posting personal information.

2)    Secondlife.com, there.com, and other virtual reality web sites that present a virtual world and mix explicit adult content as part of the online experience:  The popularity of these sites has exploded and will prove to be a new challenge for clergy and families.

3)    YouTube.com, which has countless user-contributed online videos and has become a prime outlet for cyberbullying.

4)    Instant messaging and web camera sessions that involve strangers or people met online: Online predators and pedophiles have leveraged these technologies.

Fundamentally, if any online activity includes posting personal information, interacting with strangers, or sharing information visually through photos or videos, then it should be constantly scrutinized.

Help for Parents and Families

So what are parents and clergy to do?  When it comes to online safety, being proactive is the only way to stay safe. While the road is certainly not an easy one, the following guidelines can help:

  • Get involved: First and foremost, parents and clergy must be involved in what their kids are doing.  Technology is not self-monitoring and is not a substitute for parenting or mentoring.
  • Become educated: Visit the web sites listed below and access their free guides for online safety and dictionaries for online terms.  Clergy should make hardcopies of such guides available in their parishes and conduct seminars at the parish level to educate parents about online dangers.  The Archdiocese’s Internet Ministries Department is available to conduct local, parish educational seminars on these issues.
  • Keep computers in a public space: Computers should be in a family room or other public spaces so that parents can see what is happening online.  Web cam use should only be allowed in common areas of a home.
  • Review computer activity: See what your kids are doing online, what sites they are visiting, what photos they are posting, what web sites they are creating, and who they are chatting with.
  • Set limits: Consider restricting computer use for specific purposes such as schoolwork. Children especially should not spend excessive amounts of time online–especially late at night.
  • Promote safety: Let kids know that they should not post or give out any personal information such as phone numbers, addresses, their location, etc. online.
  • Engage teens in a dialogue: Encourage kids to talk about their favorite web sites, what is happening online, and any people they meet online.
  • If all else fails: Call the police.  Local law enforcement is there to help if you are concerned about your child’s safety.

Online Aids for Parents and Clergy

While the Internet has many pitfalls, it is also a primary source for smart surfing.  The following web sites are an important resource for every parent, clergyman, and youth worker.

www.wiredsafety.org — One of the most critical web sites to visit when seeking information and education on the Internet and mobile devices with safety guides for parents and teens on social networking web sites, cyberbullying, cyberdating, and child pornography.

www.getnetwise.org — An expansive web site with an online safety guide for parents with links to Internet safety products of interest to families with children.

www.safeteens.com — This site contains guides for both teens and parents on a number of topics as well as a dictionary of Internet acronyms every parent needs to know.

www.fbi.gov/publications/pguide/pguidee.htm — A straightforward and important online safety reference for parents provided by the FBI

www.missingkids.com — This web site managed by the national center for missing and exploited children contains vital information to help protect your children from being a victim of sexual exploitation.

www.blogs.goarch.org — An informational web site by the Archdiocese Department of Information Technology and Internet Ministries that provides parents, clergy, and youth workers with updated information and links with technology news and issues facing Church communities and Orthodox Christian families.

 

As the adoption of technology quickens, the challenges it will present will become more complex.  As Christians, we must heed the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to comfort one another and edify one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11). If we stay grounded in the message and teachings of Scripture, then we will be able to overcome whatever challenges may come before us.

 

Theo Nicolakis is the Chief Information Officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and represents the Archdiocese on the executive committee of the Religious Alliance Against Pornography.