By Jason Thacker
My wife and I have two young sons. Our oldest is nearly three years old and has recently developed a deep love for cars, trucks, trains, and construction vehicles.
Not only does he love to play his toys vehicles and pretend he’s a racecar driver or construction worker, but he also loves to watch shows on TV and online about these vehicles.
We’ve always tried to be cautious about what he watches and for how long. While we don’t have strict guidelines for screen time in our home, we don’t allow much more than a show or two a day.
Just recently, my wife and I were sitting with him watching some YouTube toy vehicle videos and made a disturbing discovery. One of these videos show a male action figure screaming and drowning in a puddle. Another had weirdly inappropriate commercials running throughout the video.
While we know we can’t protect him from seeing certain things, we have complete control over what he watches in our house. We didn’t feel these things were appropriate for him to watch and subsequently have only allowed him to watch things on TV that we record and on streaming services like Hulu, Netflix, or the popular TV apps like Nick Jr. and Disney.
But many families rely on user submitted video services like YouTube and other free video services because of the often-enormous cost of online streaming and cable packages.
Children are being exposed to more things online than you imagine, especially if you aren’t engaged while they enjoy some screen time.
But even larger issues loom over us as parents—like how to think about online privacy, pornography, and various forms of data collection. Not to mention how social media is being abused and is becoming a place where people seek to prey on children.
Parents in your congregation are rightfully nervous and overwhelmed by these things and you might even be yourself. Here are a couple tips on how to help parents in your church protect their kids online.
Online tools like video streaming and social media are becoming very dangerous places for children of all ages.
Amid fake reports of the dangerous Momo challenge, a UK report released by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children suggests that Instagram is the now the number one platform for child abusers seeking to groom children and lure them into dangerous situations.
The report that also indicated that the most vulnerable group for grooming are 12- to 15-year-old girls, but that victims were as young as five years old. This comes on the heels of Instagram recent ban all self-harm content after a 14-year-old girl who died by suicide in 2017.
She had been looking at those types of images on the platform before her death.
In the United States, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Eric Hawley (R-Mo.) are currently drafting legislation to strengthen privacy laws for children because of the online tracking and data collection practices are not adequate for the age we live in with social media and streaming services.
Data is being collected on us all of time from what we watch, read, and click on. This data is collected and analyzed often by forms of artificial intelligence to inform marketers of our habits online. This is no different for our children.
Online safety is paramount for children in our hyper-connected age and access to a device should be a reward and not the norm. As you lead parents in your congregation, encourage them to explore online platforms and sites before giving their children access.
While older children might claim that they are being unjustly scrutinized for their online activity, parents have the responsibility to be aware of everything their children do online and to step in when needed with limitations and oversight.
If the worst thing that happens to a child is less screen time or that an app is not accessible, parents are doing a great job raising their kids.
One of the biggest pitfalls in parenting is the tendency to start a show or video and then disengage. This is extremely common because of the stresses of life and the desire for a moment of solitude in your busy day.
But this also can be very dangerous for children because they have to navigate what they see and hear by themselves.
Just recently, YouTube announced it would disable comments on videos featuring minors under the age of 18, because of how toxic and predatory the comment section was becoming.
Imagine giving your child unfettered access to a video for kids online. They could be exposed to violent language, predatory behavior, and inappropriate language just in the comment sections, never mind the video itself. Taking a simple step of watching alongside of them and evaluating content will go a long way with protecting kids online.
One of the easiest things you can teach parents to do is to invest in this time with their children so they are aware of what the child is being exposed to online. Watch things with them and talk with them about what they see.
There will be times you let them watch things without your direct supervision, but that should only be after you have checked out the content and the method they will engage the content on.
Depending on their age, you can encourage parents to begin to sharing with their children some of the dangers lurking on the internet. This allows older teens to be aware of dangerous situations and can also lead to open dialogue when they come across these issues online.
When things are kept in the shadows, it’s easier for issues to go unnoticed which may lead to very dangerous outcomes.
Use wisdom in sharing because not all information is beneficial for children, especially the younger they are. The most important thing is to stay engaged with your children and let them know that their parents are always there regardless of what happens.
Parenting is difficult, but parents aren’t called to do it alone. The church is designed by God to be a people who care for one another and support each other throughout the journey of parenthood.
As pastors and ministry leaders, it’s crucial we equip parents in our midst to navigate these new technological challenges they’ll face each day.
Jason is the chair of research in technology ethics for the Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission.