My teenage niece has put me on her e-mail mailing list of friends. Without my brother's knowledge, she has been receiving e-mail chain letters bearing superstitious threats or promises. "If you don't forward this message to at least 10 people, bad things will happen; if you do, good things will happen"mostly that sort of thing. I informed her of the erroneous nature of this kind of e-mail and she stopped forwarding the messages.
Another family I know made the mistake of allowing their 10-year-old son to have Internet access in his bedroom. They learned from their 8-year-old daughter that their son was looking at "bad pictures" on his computer. The computer was moved into the family room (soon enough to stop the boy from continuing to surf forbidden waters, but too late to keep the potentially harmful images from finding a place in his young and impressionable mind).
And my own experience: Trying to find Tara Lipinski's snail mail address once, I stopped in chat room dedicated to this Catholic Olympic gold medallist ice skater, known for invoking the intercession of St. Thérèse of Lisieux during competition. A teenage girl in the room wanted to chat privately; it quickly became evident that her interest was not in Tara's address but in mine! I'm sure this girl's parent had no idea of their daughter's risky exploits in Internet chat rooms.
Are parents monitoring their children's Internet activity? A study I read recently said that the majority are not. Perhaps that is why in June of 2000 the United States Catholic Bishops' Conference published a document titled "Your Family and Cyberspace." (For the entire text of this helpful document online, go to usccb.org/comm/cyberspace.shtml)
While extolling the great benefits of the Internet in this document, the bishops at the same time warn of its many dangers. For them Internet use "can be a little like visiting the best theme park in the world and coming across a toxic-waste dump." Anyone with a computer and modem has access to untold treasures of helpful, educational and inspiring informationyet can just as easily view millions of pages displaying images and text that glamorize violence, hate and grossly deviant sexual behavior. And those are just the obvious dangers. More subtle, and equally damaging in the long run, are religious sites containing all manner of misinformation on the Churchfrom the slightly inaccurate to the flagrantly deceptive, and everything in between.
What's a parent to do?
The best protection the bishops recommend against Internet misuse is an atmosphere of prayer and the sharing of Christian values in the home. In most cases, this will lead to a natural and open dialogue between children and their parents about Internet experiences. The same rules of safe conduct in the real world for children also apply to the Internet. For example, don't talk to strangers. In the same way, ask your children where they are going when they "go on" to the Internet. Listen to your children when they tell you about what they have found.
If you use AOL or another major Internet provider, you already have parental controls available to you. They're easy to implement. Another options is WeBlocker, a free Internet filtering software program downloadable at we-blocker.com that can be configured to suit your needs. Fortunately, for children at school and public libraries, lawmakers have mandated the use of Internet filtering software; failure to comply will result in the loss of federal funding.
Unless your child is an angel, you need to be an active participant in his or her Internet experience. Think of it as an excellent opportunity to communicate your values to your children. "If parents don't care about Internet use, children will presume that they need not care, either."
Here are this month's recommended sites, three of which have a family theme in keeping with the subject just discussed:
The Daughters of St. Paul publish "My Friend," a Catholic magazine for kids and their parents. The online version, at http://www.daughtersofstpaul.com/myfriend, contains games, activities, forums, saints, stories and a whole lot more stuff kids will enjoy.
Catholic Kids Net http://www.catholickidsnet.org is a fun and exciting national club for kids 5-12. The site offers Catholic formation and fun in two ways. First, the "Kids for Jesus Mission Pack" challenges youngsters on aspects of their faith through theme-oriented puzzles, games and projects every month. Second, kids can form their own local team and become a K4J Team Leader. Corresponding online activities make this s fun stop.
The Apostolate for Family Consecration hosts Catholic Familyland at http://www.familyland.org, another good source for family formation. You can find out how to subscribe to their 24 hour Catholic family TV Network. The AFC offers many ways to assist families, parishes, and other apostolates in the Church.
Finally, the Catholic Yellow Pages http://www.catholicyellowpages.net is a new, free Internet service, created by Mark Endres of Madison, Wisc., for businesses that currently advertise in diocesan newspapers or church bulletins and consumers who prefer to patronize Catholic-owned businesses. Endres says his vision is to build a database of 1 million businesses that financially support the Church, providing Catholic families nationwide with an easy-to-use guide to Catholic-friendly businesses in their town, county and state.
Safe Surfing for the Whole Family
Tips from the U.S. Bishops' document "Your Family and Cyberspace," available at http://www.nccbuscc.org.org/comm/cyberspace.htm:
Take the time to become educated about the Internetit's an investment in safety and health of your children.
Select an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that provides the option of ISP-filtered access.
Put any computer with Internet access in a public area of the housenot in a bedroom or den.
Spend time on the Internet with your child, even if you are only an interested learneryou may be surprised by how much you enjoy it.
Encourage your children to think about what they find on the Internet and to ask you if, for instance, they find "Catholic" information that doesn't sound like what they've learned about the Church at home or in school.
Focus on the good sites and material available.
Guide your children in how to use e-mail responsibly. It's a fun and useful part of the Internet, if used properly.
Encourage your children to bring anything questionable to your attention, and praise them for bringing problems to you.
Caution your children never to give personal informationsuch as name, address or telephone numberto anyone on the Internet without your permission, and never to send their pictures.
Tell your children not to fill out questionnaires they find on the Internet without permission.
Tell your children not to respond to any belligerent or suggestive contact or to anything that makes them uncomfortableand to let you know if anything like that happens.
Do not permit face-to-face meetings with people they meet on the Internet, unless there is a good reason to do so and you or someone trust is present.
Don't overreact if your children bring something inappropriate to your attention, or they will be intimidated and not do so again.
Don't miss the significance of hidden disksusage of pornographic or hate-filled material tends to be secretive.
Remind your children that these rules apply whenever they use computers at locations outside the home, such as libraries.
Above all, communicate. The best protection is good relationships and a healthy Christian family life in which members talk and pray together.
Brother John Raymond welcomes
e-mail at email@example.com.
He is author of Catholics on the
Webmaster of www.monkofadoration.org