By Bradley R. Wilcox, ‘85
What are your parents doing to help you avoid problems on the Internet?” That’s what I asked 1,500 Latter-day Saint teenagers from the United States, Canada, and beyond. Most claimed that staying in contact with family and good friends by e-mail and having easy access to material related to the Church of Jesus Christ on the Internet had strengthened their resolve to live gospel standards. One young woman added, “It’s also a big help when you’re working on school projects or when you need to look up movie show times.”
But teens also acknowledged Internet drawbacks and dangers. Pornography was number one. A young man admitted, “I became addicted to porn because it was so easily available on the Internet. Each time I viewed I wanted pictures that were more graphic and extreme. It became a huge problem for me before I finally had the courage to talk to the bishop and start trying to break the habit. It’s still a big temptation, though. I’d give anything to have never gotten involved in the first place.” Young people also saw chat rooms as being very dangerous. One young woman said, “I read about a 13-year-old girl who was getting a lot of attention from guys she met on the Internet and ended up arranging meetings with them. She was murdered by one of them. That article really scared me.” Youth also mentioned anti-Mormon sites, gambling, and online games as cyber-dangers. One teenager explained, “The anti-Mormon stuff is full of lies and half-truths; many of the games are full of violence. But the biggest problem is that they’re both just a big waste of time.”
How are parents helping their teens take advantage of the Internet’s benefits and avoid its pitfalls? Many teens mentioned that their parents had installed protection programs and passwords, but some of the same youth pointed out that such software was no cure-all. One young man said, “If parents think their children are safe just because they bought some program, they’d better think again. There are lots of ways around the programs, and you can always find a computer someplace that doesn’t have any safeguards. Besides, even if the software blocks what kids have access to, it doesn’t keep them safe from predators.” A young woman related, “There’s really no safety program that is totally safe. If you want to do bad things on the Internet, you’ll find a way. Parents have to focus on other ways to protect kids.” These youth identified a variety of ways their parents are supplementing software protection to help them use the Internet wisely.
Keep Computers in High-Traffic Areas
Do not allow young people to have computers in their bedrooms. Put them in the family room or dining area. Keep the screen of the computer facing the center of the room and not a wall. One teenager said, “My mom moved our computer right into the dining area by the phone where everyone is passing by all the time.” Another said, “My parents have our computer in my dad’s study, but they installed doors with windows so they can easily see what’s on the screen even if the door is closed to keep the dog out.”
Limit Computer Time
It is obvious that the more time young people spend online, the more likely they are to engage in inappropriate activities. One teen explained, “My parents put a time limit on the computer. By the time I do my homework and e-mail my friends, I don’t have any time left to look for trouble.” One might think teens would rebel at such restraints. On the contrary, the majority of teens I contacted were grateful for them. One told me, “This way I have more time in my life for other things, and I feel like a better person because of it.”
Encourage Other Interests and Activities
“I spent way too much time on the computer and was getting into some stuff I shouldn’t have,” said one young man. “Then my dad helped me buy and start fixing up a 1984 Toyota Tercel, and I didn’t care much about the computer anymore.” Of course, buying a car is not the answer for every child, but shifting a young person’s focus toward a variety of interests is healthy. Another boy said, “My parents keep me busy, so I don’t have free time to cruise the Web.” A young woman mentioned involvement in other personal and family activities: “My parents encourage me to read instead of watch TV and play on the Internet. They also read to us as a family. Believe it or not, family scripture reading, family prayers, and Family Home Evening activities really do help.”
Check Computer Records
“Some people call it snooping, but my mom just calls it ‘good, old-fashioned parenting,'” one girl said of her parents’ practice of keeping track of what she does online. Learn how to check the history of what sites have been visited, and don’t be afraid to talk to children about anything that seems questionable. One young woman said, “My parents usually let us use the computer only when they are home, but they also go through the files to see where we’ve been. That’s how my brother got caught looking at pornography. Mom and Dad were able to start helping him.”
Discourage Unsupervised Sleepovers
“Nothing very good ever happens at sleepovers, even if you are with other LDS kids,” one young man responded. “I’m not talking about Scout camp or youth conference, where adults are around. I’m talking about just kicking with your buddies. It gets late and guys start talking, and pretty soon you’re on the computer or out running around. It just leads to trouble.” A former bishop of a BYU campus ward agrees. “Too many of the confessions I have heard from college students have been about poor choices at sleepovers when they were younger,” he says. “That’s when they have gotten involved with drinking, pornography, sexual experimentation, sexual abuse, and vandalism.”
Supervise Any Off-Line Meetings with Strangers
Parents should be extremely careful about allowing young people to meet Internet strangers off-line. Before such meetings take place, there are almost always phone calls involved. Check your bill. Are there numbers you don’t recognize? If young people really want to meet someone off-line for any reason, be sure to accompany them and meet at a public place, never at your home.
Post Pictures of Christ and Temples by the Computer
“Having a picture of Christ by the computer helps me remember how much the Savior loves me and wants me to make righteous choices,” said one young woman. Another claimed, “Having my favorite picture of Jesus right next to the computer reminds me that even if my parents aren’t watching, he is always watching.” One young man admitted, “I have been tempted many times to view filth on the Internet, but the spirit in my home is so strong. My mom has pictures of the prophets and temples and the Savior everywhere. Right on the computer she put a quotation from President David O. McKay about how sexual purity is a youth’s most precious possession. I have read it so often I know it by heart. How could I view filth and feel good about myself?”
Talk About Internet Use
These teenagers claimed that nothing was more helpful than parents’ asking questions and speaking openly about Internet dangers. One young man responded, “The thing that helped me most is being able to talk with my parents. My dad told me how pornography can mess up my life and ruin my future marriage. He says pornography weakens the trust, love, and commitment that are essential for a healthy sexual relationship in marriage. Someday when I’m married I want my wife to be able to trust me.” Another said, “Even when I slip up, I can talk to my dad and know he won’t blow up. He doesn’t make me feel like slime. He just helps me try to be better.” Teens said they are grateful when parents “teach correct principles,” when they don’t just make a rule, but also “explain why it’s a rule.” A young woman said: “My parents talk to me about the pros and cons of the Internet. Discussing it takes away the curiosity and mystery, so I’m not as tempted to misuse it.”
Teenagers said it was helpful when parents approached them in private and asked point-blank questions about Internet use. Parents who asked for private promises about what would or would not be done on the Internet were appreciated. One young man explained, “My parents used to have a screening system, but it was really messing things up because it would block sites that shouldn’t have been blocked. It wouldn’t even let us look up Deseretbook.com, so we finally removed it. That’s when my parents told me that the best filter is the Holy Ghost. They put the responsibility on me and asked me to commit to staying clear of the bad stuff. That helped me a lot.” A young woman related, “My parents asked me to promise them I wouldn’t go into chat rooms. They trust me, and I don’t want to lose that trust.” A young man recounted, “When I left for college this past year, my parents asked me to promise them I would make smart decisions when I got to the dorms and had access to computers without safety programs. That promise has been the best safety program ever.”
When I asked 1,500 Latter-day Saint teens what their parents were doing right to help them avoid the dangers of the Internet, their answers were clear and straightforward and showed that there is much parents are doing beyond simply installing protection software. Parents can make a positive difference in the never-ending fight against negative influences on the Internet.
Brad Wilcox is an associate professor of teacher education. He is also an author and a regular youth speaker at Especially for Youth and Education Week.