While working at CompUSA to pay his way through seminary, Buddy Knight learned of a grave danger that led to his calling equipping technologically challenged parents to protect their tech-savvy kids from the dark side of the Internet.
Knight, a former naval intelligence officer and father of four, recalls selling filtering software to a brokenhearted couple whose 14-year-old son was downloading hardcore pornography. Over the following two weeks, Knight's eyes continued to be opened to the "home front" war as he interacted with numerous customers searching for protection against online pornography.
When the first couple he'd helped returned 10 days later, angry that the software they'd purchased hadn't worked, Knight stumbled on a secondary critical issue.
"Did you change the password?" he asked the clueless couple. He discovered that in their own lack of technological prowess, they had naively trusted the software installation to the teenage son they were trying to protect.
Knight founded Knight's Quest Ministries in 2001 and developed a "Sex, Kids, and the Internet" seminar and workbook. His materials teach parents how to best protect their children from the torrent of innocence-robbing dangers in cyberspace.
Vicki Courtney, a Christian author and speaker on youth culture, calls parents to vigilance in her book "Logged On and Tuned Out: A Non-techie's Guide to Parenting a Tech-savvy Generation." Courtney, who writes from a parent's perspective, went from being "tuned out" to "logged on" when her son, who was playing computer games, exclaimed, "I won!"
Courtney asked him if he had defeated the computer, and he responded, "No, I beat some guy in Canada!" Seeing the distressed expression that came over Courtney's face, her son quickly added, "Don't worry, Mom. He's a Christian."
Courtney, who advocates tight parental supervision in the use of media, has been interviewed by Fox News and CNN on how she monitors her children's activities. Courtney believes she is providing boundaries that her children need and deep down want. They have become so accustomed to her reviewing their posts that she occasionally runs across "Hi Mom!" shout-outs in their messages to their friends.
Knight agrees that kids find security in a parent's close watch, recalling the mom who told him that her 15-year-old asked that the Net Nanny filtering software subscription be renewed to help him resist temptation.
Both authors acknowledge the many benefits of technology for education, communication and entertainment. But they also urge parents to learn everything they can about the capabilities of the media products their children use, set rules and monitor use, teach and train responsible usage, lead by example, and teach and keep on teaching a lifestyle of purity.
If they don't, parents set their children up for harmful exploitation and risky cyber behaviors.
Of primary concern to Knight is the overabundance of hardcore pornography and other sexually oriented sites that can flash on a monitor with little effort, or even by a misguided keystroke. Videos, photos, cartoons and erotic audio books can find their way to a home computer by a simple word search. Slight errors in typing a Web address can take a child or adult somewhere they never intended to go. And before it can be stopped, the wall of innocence is breached.
"Kids are being exposed to concepts of 'fun' things to do before they are emotionally or spiritually able to handle them," Knight said. "And it doesn't take a Ph.D. to realize that 'monkey see, monkey do.'"
Cybersex and "sexting" (distributing sexually explicit images of self or others by camera phone or Internet) is a trend among students as young as middle school a behavior that can damage or destroy reputations.
Johnny Derouen, associate professor of student ministries at Southwestern Seminary and a former youth pastor for 30 years, echoes Knight's concern: "When kids hit ages 12-13, there is a 600 percent increase in hormones. That hyper-drive combined with easy access to pornography is almost too much for them. By junior high, 80 percent of teens have looked at hardcore porn. It's just too easy."
Derouen said studies show that it takes three-tenths of a second for an image to become fixed in the mind. "Once it's there, you can't delete it," he said. And pornographers are well aware that age 13 is a "branding age" if a person starts using something by that time, they have that person for life.
The bad example set by some parents often is part of the problem in Derouen's experience. "Parents are so hooked themselves, even Christian parents," he said. He recounted how one teenage boy had been caught purchasing pornography, but his father refused to stop accessing porn himself. When it was discovered that the son had charged about $6,000 on a family account to purchase online pornography, it got the dad's attention.
"[W]e've got to teach kids at a young age to guard their hearts and minds," Derouen said.
A second cyber-area needing parental involvement is teaching children what they should and should not post on the Web. Children do not naturally consider how their posts might damage their character or put them in harm's way.
In "Logged On" Courtney states, "Trust me when I say that students are ignorant to the fact that any parent, teacher, employer, college admissions office, or anyone for that matter who is not in their immediate circle of online friends would ever view their pictures."
Courtney describes how, in her research, she repeatedly encountered character-damaging images posted just for fun.
"I can't tell you how many church kids I have stumbled across who have turned up in the backgrounds of pictures holding beer cans, smoking cigarettes and engaged in other unwholesome acts, unaware that they were leaving a virtual bread crumb trail of their actions."
"Chat" is another area where children need to be taught to use caution. Kids often innocently share identifying information online, which can lead an online predator to find them. Predators read posts looking for clues, such as school names, colors or mascots; names of teachers; phone numbers or e-mail addresses; or details about weekend plans.
In his material, Knight notes that sexual predators find creative ways to meet children online in chat rooms, or playing against them in online gaming such as Xbox LIVE.
"They may play against individuals for days, weeks or months before the predator tries to get more info, but they are there, chatting up our kids," he said.
On social networking venues like Facebook and MySpace, kids post their thoughts, deeds and misdeeds. Careless posts done just to be cool or funny could haunt them years later when character counts. Knight recounted the story of a young man who was denied a $40,000 scholarship because of posts in the "private" area of his MySpace page.
Tally the time
Another area of concern for parents is the amount of time teens actually spend using technology.
Merritt Johnston, executive director of Sage Ministries, an online and conference ministry for teenage girls and their parents, reports, "When surveying the girls who come to our events, it's not uncommon to find those who are utilizing technology upwards of 18 hours a day. The thought of turning off and tuning out media for even a short period of time is such a foreign concept that I fear most never have the opportunity to hear clearly from God due to the overwhelming noise of media influence in their lives."
"I didn't see it coming," documentary writer Rachel Dretzin confessed regarding the isolating influence of technology on her family's home life.
In a webcam-type video format, Dretzin explained how one night she realized that as her family was all together in the same house, they were simultaneously away in other worlds. Her husband and son were working on laptops, and her other children were playing with an iPhone.
Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff co-wrote and co-hosted the Frontline episode "Digital Nation" on PBS, a documentary exploring the need to "push the pause button" and evaluate the consequences of life in a digital society both positive and negative.
Dretzin and Rushkoff's approach somewhat resembled the age-old illustration of the frog in the slowly heating stewpot.
They showed how people now are customarily conducting major parts of their lives in "virtual" reality. Business meetings take place in virtual conference rooms, friendships and romances often begin in online "worlds" between avatars (a digital representation of "me"). The information presented begs the question, "Is technology taking us to a place we really want to go?"
Ponder its power
In the Digital Nation documentary, Todd Oppenheimer, author of "The Flickering Mind," said, "My concern with this digital media is it's such short attention span stuff that they get bored. It's what I call instant gratification education. A thought comes to you, you pursue it. You see a website, you click on it.... All this bifurcates the brain, keeps it from being able to pursue one linear thought and teaches you that you should be able to have every urge answered the minute the urge occurs."
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle noted, "Technology isn't good or bad; it's powerful and it's complicated. Take advantage of what it can do. Learn what it can do. But also ask, 'What is it doing to us?' We're going to slowly, slowly find our balance, but I think it's going to take time."
Derouen said the more time spent communicating through electronic media, the less time is spent communicating face-to-face. He observes that kids are not getting the practice they need in learning how to discern body language and facial expression. "It's hurting them at school and in their jobs," he said.
Though the dangers are serious, parents heads still are generally in the sand, Derouen said.
"Most are either ignorant of the issues or they are busy with their own problems and schedules. They love their kids but are so pushed by time that they tend to let it slide. When I go to meetings where we're teaching parents about this, it stuns them. I do see an increase in curiosity about that issue, but I don't see it carrying over. Not many are using Covenant Eyes or Net Nanny."