Staying Safe Online
How can we help our children to navigate the digital world when they often know more about it than we do? Here's some advice from Paul’s letter to Titus.
“We do such a bad job of this….”
When I was asked to lead a seminar on keeping kids safe online, I did what any self-respecting teacher does: phoned a friend. In fact, several. Including church leaders, two head teachers, a children’s worker, a GP and a missionary.
Their responses all had one thing in common: “We do a really bad job of this, but here’s the principles we try to aim for...”
Why this common “we do a really bad job of this?” response? Mainly because technology advances so quickly, and our children often know more than we do. Coupled with the fact that a quick look at a YouTube video reveals how to unblock filters, break passwords and go incognito on search engines.
If our children want to look at something they shouldn’t, they’ll find a way.
We thought we’d found the perfect solution for our eldest. He has a mobile, but no data. So he can only use the internet when connected to Wi-Fi. Turns out that once he gets to school, his friend turns on a wireless hotspot and he’s able to connect to whatever he wants. Great.
So what can we do?
What we can’t do is make a specific one size fits all plan. There is no perfect app that will solve all our problems. And tempting as it is to pronounce a blanket screen ban, that would be to lose out on all the brilliant ways that we can use digital media.
Instead, we can consider some Biblical principles, and allow them to guide us in this ever-changing digital world.
In Titus 2, the way the Christians in the rather colourful culture in Crete (“always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” Titus 1:12) stayed safe was by learning what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to.
1. The Grace of God Teaches Us
Titus 2:11 says the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. In verse 12 it teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.
So what is that grace that appeared? Verse 14 tells us it is Christ. He gave himself up for us – that teaches us how much it cost for our sin to be forgiven. To redeem us from all wickedness – we are now free to change those sinful habits that are so deeply ingrained.
There is no hidden habit too hard for him to break, no secret sin too unmentionable for him to forgive. He redeemed us from ALL wickedness. And to purify for himself a people who are his very own – he forgives us for doing it AGAIN and gives us his perfect life.
When we are teaching our children about the internet, this is what will really transform their hearts in a way that no amount of rules, apps or filters ever can. Praying with them after they have sinned, reassuring them that through Christ we can be forgiven and set free to change. That is what ultimately will keep them safe.
2. It teaches us to say No. And Yes.
a) No to ungodliness
In my son’s secondary school the Deputy Head teaches parents that the kids shouldn’t have devices in their bedrooms. What a brave thing to stand up and say. How counter-cultural.
Why such a strict stance? Because he doesn’t want kids viewing and sharing things that will harm them.
A major danger in the digital world is the ease of access to things we would never set out to get hold of deliberately. This includes films, dramas and literature with inappropriate content, pornography, and even online games. We can access all these without anyone knowing.
This is where filters, parental controls and informative Christian websites like Pluggedin can help us. They can highlight, filter out, or help us to be accountable for unhelpful content. In addition, restricting screen usage to communal areas (including our own!), will make accessing inappropriate content much less appealing.
We need to say “no” to ungodliness.
b) No to Worldly Passions
The greatest danger to our walk with God in Titus 3:3 is not things like stealing, or swearing. It is the danger of being deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. That might include entertainment, sport or social media. For our children that often includes gaming and YouTube videos.
Which parent hasn’t worried that Peppa Pig seems more attractive to their child than Jesus? We must beware of communicating subconsciously that Jesus is boring. We were created to be passionate about God, to desire Him above all else. Why? Because he is worthy. He really is better!
We need to think through how to genuinely believe for ourselves that Jesus, our Father, church and Sundays are the best. Better than anything else this world has to offer. If we don’t think they are, our children will pick up on that. Do you desire Jesus more than Facebook? Time with our Father more than watching sport? Reading your Bible more than staying up late on a box-set binge?
We need to say “no” to worldly passions.
c) Yes to Self-Control
The average person checks their phone 350 times per day. If you sleep for 8 hours that’s once per 7 minutes. Netflix recently admitted their main competitor is not Amazon Prime, but sleep!
Steve Jobs, the late Apple executive, when asked about how his kids liked the latest iPad responded by saying they hadn’t really played on it. Why? “We’ve seen the dangers of technology first-hand, I’ve seen it in myself. I don’t want it to happen to my kids”. New York Times 2014.
The apps we use, like Netflix, run automatically from one episode to the next, there is never a natural break-point in the digital world. You can always click through to the next related article, or the other shopping items you might need.
All this adds up to a highly addictive experience from which it is very difficult to escape. It is so easy to lose track of time. Sleep often being the casualty, along with the next day’s time with God.
Time-wasting is a huge issue for our children too. The foundations we lay today will stay with them into adulthood. Are we training our children to plan their time, to use it wisely, to work hard and rest constructively? This is where setting timers is hugely beneficial, and not just for the kids!
We need to say “yes” to self-control.
d) Yes to Uprightness
Social media makes it very tempting to lie, exaggerate and boast. The flip side is that we look at other people’s lives and compare ourselves.
We belong to Christ. We answer to him It’s not about being better or worse than someone else. So let me ask you. Does social media help us to say yes to uprightness? Does what you post, help others to be upright? Do the posts of other people help you to be upright?
How can we help our children navigate this increasingly pressurised world of celebrity culture? A world where Photoshop, YouTube videos and the perfect selfie mean you have the potential to be famous, if you just get it right?
We need to say “yes” to uprightness.
e) Yes to Godliness
Above all we want our kids to say yes to godliness, and no to worldliness. This will take a miracle – are we praying for them as they face the daily pressure to choose between the world and the Lord?
3. We teach by example
Paul makes this clear in Titus 2:7 “In everything set them (the young men) an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity...”
70% of children in one survey thought their parents spent too much time on screens. The reason I applied the above principles to both us and our children, is that we teach them by what we do, not just what we say.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.” If we want to keep our children safe it will be far more effective to work with them. To talk about principles for parents and children alike to be working on.
Together we should plan when we will work, when we will enjoy some entertainment – whether that will be on screens or face to face. We need to encourage one another to be physically active not just sedentary. We need to remind each other to enjoy the social aspect of the digital world, to be able to keep in touch with people who are not nearby geographically. But we need to be careful to interact face to face and not be checking our screens during family times. Together we need to have clear boundaries around screen usage that everyone adheres to.
4. We teach by inhabiting their world
Older women were to teach the younger women (Titus 2:4), because they understood the unique pressures of being busy at home. So we need to read the books our children are reading, we need to play their games, listen to their music, know their passwords and check their history.
Maybe we even need to own their devices so it’s not theirs, but ours and we check what they’re doing on it. It’s much easier to blanket ban screen time. But that would be to miss out on all the good we can use the internet for. Surely it is far better to walk with our children through the digital world, allowing the grace of God to teach us to say “yes” to self-control, uprightness and godliness, and “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions.
Titus wasn’t able to inhabit everyone’s world. That’s why he taught the older women to teach the younger women. Is there a young adult in your church who you could train up who could then teach the kids to be safe online? Maybe he/she could join their game, or follow them on social media, with the desire to help them learn what to say yes and no to.
A practical example
One of the parents I spoke to told of a time when she and her husband were checking the history on their teenager’s phone. To their horror they came across some images he had accessed that were not appropriate.
Dad approached the son about it. He was not angry, because he wanted the son to always feel able to come to him about this stuff. When confronted, the son broke down in tears. And what he said was fascinating: “I’m so glad you checked, I’ve been haunted by those images but I didn’t know what to do about it, or who to turn to.”
These parents were amongst those who said to me “we do a really bad job of this...”
To be able to talk to your child, to make time to check what they’re viewing, to have a relationship where they feel safe to be honest, to be teaching them about the grace of God that forgives, changes, purifies... that is not doing a bad job.
We may not know all the dangers, we may not even recognise half the stuff they’re doing online, but what keeps them and us safe is the grace of God who appeared. He is the one who teaches us. Together keep coming back to him. He will keep us safe.