Beware children and the Internet

By  John Moore, Catholic Register Special
  • January 11, 2008

{mosimage}There is finally a growing awareness that, if the Internet is like the Wild West, children are exceedingly vulnerable to being targets of stray bullets. These may take the form of pornography stumbled upon, online bullying by peers, commercial exploitation by manipulative corporate marketers or even — at an extreme — sexual luring by adults.

While these sorts of dangers have become common knowledge, I believe the broader implications of the use of the Internet by children may not be understood by all Christian parents. These broader implications involve an appreciation of a central concept in Christianity as well as elsewhere: freedom.

“Freedom” in a Christian context does not refer to freedom to choose from any of several options — such as the ability to choose which flavour of ice cream to have in one’s cone. Rather, it refers to freedom from the temptations and sinful tendencies that draw us away from the good and thus from God who is the source of all that is good. Therefore, perfect freedom (sought but never attained) is achieved when one is untroubled by temptations, when one’s every desire corresponds to God’s will in one’s life.

Adulthood is normally the stage of life when the serious Christian is able to exercise true freedom. The adult has acquired sufficient knowledge of the Good News of Jesus, has learned to practise the spiritual disciplines and has attained a level of moral development such that some level of Christian freedom is possible. In contrast, the child is in the process of developing such freedom. Under the care of his or her parents and other responsible adults, the child learns about the Gospel and undergoes moral and spiritual development. During this process the child is protected from the consequences of bad choices.

In this context, there are three major problems presented by the Internet. The first is that the Internet gives children more options than any other medium or technology, and allows the choice of options to be made more secretly than is the case with most other media. While in the multi-channel universe of contemporary television there may be 50 or more stations, the Internet presents options without number. There are virtually unlimited opportunities for accessing data, images, music and opinions — and for responding to these. While television use is relatively easy to monitor and thus police, because the sounds and images can be seen and heard by anyone in the vicinity, the computer can often be used more secretively.

The second problem is that the Internet does not distinguish between child and adult. Any child who has mastered the basics of Internet surfing is able to act and react online as an independent agent. Again the comparison with television use is instructive: while the child watching television may have the ability to choose from a number of channels, the child using the Internet may not only choose from many web sites but also create personae, play games, watch video clips, download songs, participate in discussions, send and receive messages — and in so doing interact with myriad other Internet users. The child may click and type his or her way onto any number of sites (although this may be limited by filters), and what they experience on those sites is exactly the same as that experienced by the adult users.

The third problem is that the Internet presents corporations with powerful new opportunities to market to the young. Significant corporate resources are now being focused on developing the Internet experience for children. For example, entertainment conglomerates are in the process of creating “virtual worlds” for children on the Internet. These are multi-faceted web sites that offer games, video clips involving popular cartoon characters and interactive possibilities. Corporate marketers see in the Internet exciting new possibilities for influencing purchases involving children.

There are, of course, Internet filters that can be used by parents to screen out online content that is obscene or objectionable in certain other ways. And no doubt the “virtual world” sites will implement safeguards designed to protect the children who visit. However, it should be understood by Christian parents that such efforts to protect child users of the Internet cannot completely alleviate the inherent dangers of the medium.

It is in the very nature of the Internet to offer virtually unlimited options. While the serious Christian adult may be armed with the spiritual discipline and moral development necessary to successfully navigate the online minefields, the child is not. The Internet provides the child with many opportunities to make bad choices, and in some circumstances the child is not protected from the consequences of those bad choices. Without the adult’s ability to exercise true Christian freedom in such an arena, the child is vulnerable.

(Moore is a freelance writer living in Ottawa.)

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