This article examines technological trends involving the internet, their impact on Christadelphian families, and suggests ways in which families can counteract harmful effects from the ongoing changes on the internet.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come” (2 Tim 3:1). The Greek word for perilous means “hard to bear, painful, giving rise to grief” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary). The Lord spoke of “men’s hearts failing them for fear” (Luke 21:26), and that the time of the end would be marked by many “running to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” (Dan 12:4). The “information technology” age is certainly presenting challenges to the brotherhood in a time when man’s mobility and knowledge increases dramatically but the world heads toward disaster. The challenge of the internet is hard to manage and is causing concern for ecclesias and families.

The Rising Tide of Technological Change

People remain unaware of the sheer scale of coming technological change on the horizon, which will change society further.

Coming changes reflect “digital convergence”. High speed internet access gives homes rapid communication (eg email), instant communication (eg MSN Messenger), and free or low cost phone calls nationally and internationally (eg Skype). Telephone companies and internet companies provide (either in partnership or competition) access to tens of thousands of movies of any type, music of any genre, radio stations, TV, magazine and newspaper content—all with just a few clicks, 24 hours a day. Within three years, you’ll be accessing all of this from whoever gives you a phone service. Progress? Or Perilous?

Anything You Want, Now

Technology promises unparalleled convenience. You can now “stream” any movie or music genre from the internet all over the house without wires. Computers are “media centres” from which you can download thousands of songs and music tracks to your ‘iPod’ and listen anywhere you go. You can “surf the net”, and watch your movies from the latest generation mobile phones, or buy anything you want (including the immoral and unethical) using credit cards from your internet mobile phone. Now that people feel safe using online banking or credit cards, “e-commerce” is growing annually at a staggering rate. Business trades online to avoid the cost of buildings and employees. This is an age of “buying and selling” and the internet helps fuel the frenzy.

The promise of the Kingdom of Men to you now is anything, anyplace, anytime.

Effects on Our Children

Even when children do not actively seek out immoral or unethical content (eg soft and hard pornography, hate or self harm and violence sites etc), children are frequently confronted with graphic adverts or receive unsolicited emails designed to make them look at inappropriate content. Every study and survey conducted on exposure of children to online pornography shows frighteningly high levels of viewing by accident.

Many parents are not even aware their children have their own web-based email accounts for sending and receiving mail. One worrying issue is that parents are not aware of who their child communicates with by instant messaging or email programs. Another issue is that free email account holders are subject to bombardment from ‘spam’—electronic junk mail which gives you addresses on the internet you can visit to view products for sale—usually pornography, and frequently offering free viewing for a time.

Parents remain unaware that a massive percentage of internet traffic is engaged in the sale or swapping of movies, music or computer programs. Swapping of these items for free is almost always done on an illegal or “pirate” basis so as to avoid buying the product or paying royalties. Again, the bulk of traffic is pornography. Download a Peer file-sharing program (‘P2P’) off the ’net for free—then with a few clicks access extreme pornography and violence in the form of videos or pictures. The other major uses for this is music swapping or avoiding buying computer software. This is almost always illegal, and definitely “un-Christlike”!

Parents are doubtful that access to inappropriate content is so easy but a simple demonstration often horrifies and educates them. Parents imagine someone in charge at school or work can stop evil content; but they learn that in reality it is a nightmare “cat and mouse” game for IT staff to try and stop such access. Parents believe their child knows better and wouldn’t choose to access such things. They forget the power of peer group pressure, the ease with which children adopt new technology, and assume children with unformed spiritual consciences have adopted parental values.

This last assumption by parents is a most dangerous one. Parents need to actively initiate training and activities in the home to form a child’s spiritual conscience—naturally children will do what their peers do. Even if a child does not, a child is desensitised by continued exposure to contrary values; whilst not actively manifesting them, they become unconsciously tolerant of evil.

Parents often say, “We don’t allow the computer to be used unmonitored, and/or the computer is in an open part of the house so we can see what’s being done.” This is admirable because it shows an increased level of awareness on the part of the parents. Parents should also be aware that children and teens use the ‘Alt+Tab’ strategy to hide screens from view instantly, and frequently the child can surreptitiously view content when they are aware that the parent is preoccupied or has left the room.

The serious effects of the internet on children is acknowledged as a most serious concern by the world itself. Even with no moral compass, or lukewarm Christian values, that concern is reflected in British, American and European legislation to protect children. Australian politicians have raised the issue but make little commitment to doing anything about it.

The Effect on Teens and Young Adults

Whilst all of the previous concerns apply to teenagers, other factors increase the potency of internet dangers. Teenage hormones, increasingly unsupervised independence and availability of money or credit cards mean that teenagers (with easily influenced consciences and unformed values) can now taste the forbidden fruit.

They are notoriously influenced by peers in regard to technology. Teens strengthen each other’s values and behaviours. Look for a teen and note the “necessary” mobile phone and iPod. Note the use of text messaging from teenager to teenager day and night, at home, in school, during the meeting. Listen to sociologists categorise a new phenomenon—teenage “tribes”, where teens connect and interact online and by mobile phone “virtually” and parents are ignorant of the silent wireless communication. This is why parents must learn something about their teenage child’s world and technology—they cannot counteract a problem if they do not even know it exists! Who is your child talking to? How? When? Why?

An increasing area of male teen (and adult) involvement in the internet is “online gaming”. A person may play against other players remotely via the internet in action games. The action games often centre on shooting and violence. In a variation on this, groups of players congregate together and “network” their computers to play against other teams. Real life trends show this happening late into the night (especially Saturday), affecting attendance on a Sunday morning. Obviously this is a commentary on values and priorities—time and effort applied to “relaxation”, playing games with questionable values embedded, at the expense of the best for Yahweh. Other impacts have included fathers ignoring family to sleep so they can stay up late gaming, or using money from the family budget for the latest gaming equipment.

The Effect on Brethren and Sisters

Instances of brethren and sisters having been affected by internet addiction in the areas of gambling, gaming and pornography exist right now in Australasia. Actual financial loss and marriage breakdowns are occurring.

One “harmless” area where the internet impacts on our lives is participation in Christadelphian internet Bible forums, or email lists. People contribute, question, discuss, debate Bible topics or related issues. The benefit of exchange of ideas on Scripture are offset by large amounts of time spent on discussion of trivialities, mere opinion rarely backed up by Scripture, divisions caused by misunderstanding of the printed word, and the ease with which wrong doctrine is spread and affects brethren and sisters.

Excessive online socializing has given rise to the idea of having “virtual ecclesias”, and “virtual memorial meetings” as an alternative to meeting with real brethren and sisters, especially if one feels unhappy with their ecclesia. This is nothing like the purpose of an ecclesia—a family where we support each other and where we are forced to confront and deal with our own selfish behaviour (cpHeb 10:25).You cannot do this “online”, where it is easy to run away from a problem.

Some brethren say, “Make a stand. Refuse to have the internet in your home.” Can we live without the internet?

Schools everywhere are moving to internet connectivity and online use. The vast majority of all white-collar employment involves use of a computer—with an internet connection. Ecclesial syllabuses publish email addresses. Arranging brethren and committees correspond and forward minutes by email. The ecclesial world across the globe is connected to, endorses and uses the internet. Internet use by Christadelphians is here to stay.

Conscience and Choice

Awareness of how the internet impacts on us and tools to control the internet are good. The reality is, however, that we need more than a “content filter” software program to help control the internet—we need “content filtering” of the heart and mind!

The young man Joseph had deep-seated values and a strong conscience before his God—so he actively avoided even the appearance of evil. Scripture is full of accounts like this. Each positive example had spent time filling their heart with things that meant they loved God and were conscious of Him all through each day, they hated things which would displease Him. What we do, think, say, and view reflects our real state and whether our values and actions are consistent: “Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh” (James 3:12).

The real way of combating moral evil is through our values and beliefs, exercising our conscience to actively choose the right option.

Conscience is our awareness of how we are behaving or should behave in light of the beliefs, values and morals we know to be true. We often think “conscience” allows liberty, but Paul’s writings reveal that there is a framework that conscience must operate within. This is that:

We are the Lord’s, not our own person, in life or death (Rom 14:8; Rom 15:5,6)

We show love to our brother by being aware of and avoiding behaviour that can confuse him or lead him to behaviours that lead him out of the Truth. If necessary, we should avoid that behaviour altogether rather than cause them to lose out on the kingdom (Rom 14:10–15, 21; 1 Cor 8:9–13)

We should edify (strengthen, encourage, help, educate) each other and take a special interest in our brother as Christ has done to us; we should aim to be of one mind so that we can worship together (Rom 14:9; Rom 15:1–7; 1 Cor 10:31,33)

Conscience may allow liberty, but it is clear that we are not our own free agents in Christ, that our example can build up others, and that we can encourage them toward the kingdom. Our actions do affect others. Each decision becomes a telling point in strengthening our character, and helping our families, and the brethren and sisters of God’s family. We can consciously review our lives and make each decision count for good. We allow our children to access inappropriate content by remaining ignorant or refusing to act to put in place a ‘content filter’—a software program or internet service provided (ISP) service which cuts out inappropriate content coming to the computer. Unless the program or service is a quality one, children and teens can work around it.

Separation and Accountability

God does not want robots. He gives us disciplined behavioural guidelines. We will not turn our children into robots by guiding what they are exposed to—in fact, as much as some parents think this is domineering or controlling, it is a divine recommendation! (Prov 22:6,15; Heb 12:5–11). Teaching and embedding values does not happen by chance. Having to trust children does not mean we need to allow a 24 hour per day stream of unlimited garbage or filth into the house to tempt them.

We are called to be a holy people, a separate people! To avoid the natural deceit of our hearts whereby we justify believing one thing and tolerating the opposite, we need to feel that God is with us all. He knows our hearts (Luke 16:15, Jer 17:9,10).

Practical Suggestions for Parents with the InternetIt’s not enough to remove or control things. The real issue is what is put in place to fill the void positively! Here are practical suggestions. Parents’ choices set the tone of family life and determine possible consequences for the family.A. Introduce ‘good habit’ practices

Reading daily: as a family. Whether this is the “daily readings” or not, make it daily, a set length of time and interesting for children! This feeds values and belief

Family traditions and events: plan some things for family for weeknights and weekends which involve the whole family, eg family projects, family outings. This stops fragmentation and builds togetherness

Ecclesial events: determine which meetings are absolute “no excuses” attendance. Children will not go to things when they grow up if you don’t show you are serious about going to the meetings.

To combat ‘staleness’ occasionally visit other meetings, mix with different people and vary the content of your Bible reading and family traditions

B. Become ‘computer aware’

Show leadership: We don’t believe in Evolution. Good rules and decisions for computer use don’t evolve by random chance. Introduce a content filter “off the shelf” program or, in Australia, join Webshield. If it costs $2 per week more to get software or get Webshield, then find the $2 per week. Be an example to others. Take charge of what filters into the house.

Content filtering—Consider buying programs like Cybersurf or Cyberpatrol. These are very good! Be aware you pay an ongoing annual subscription for these. Webshield costs about the same as ordinary internet access without the ongoing subscription—and clever children can’t disable the software! In Australia, Webshield (ISP) exceeds “off the shelf” software capability but if you don’t join Webshield, at least get “off the shelf” software to content filter incoming internet material.

Learn how to password protect or restrict computer access so children can go on, at a time when supervision is possible

Learn how to see internet viewing history to see what sites have been visited. Learn how to erase that history—and learn to question why anyone in your family has been covering up their viewing history by wiping it out.

If you use Windows and the program Internet Explorer, find out how to search computer files associated with Internet Explorer, called Index.dat and open these with Notepad to see the viewing history which doesn’t get wiped out even if someone thinks they have wiped it out!

Position the computer in a common family area, and be aware that people are rarely as consistent in monitoring what’s on the screen as they think they are.

Learn about the Boss button—the keyboard buttons you can hit to instantly hide the screen you were looking at. On most computers, this is done by pressing the ALT key plus TAB key.

Find out if your child has a webmail account (eg Hotmail, Yahoo or other provider). This means they can send and receive emails which they can check at school or outside the home.

Observe viewing times and patterns. Excessive time (especially if in the later evenings onwards signals a problem), especially if people viewing will not openly disclose the subject of their constant attention.

Check out each and every program on the computer. You may not know how to use each one, but you should know what each one does.

Ban file sharing programs which leave your computer vulnerable to virus attack, and are used to swap undesirable content (eg Limewire, eMule)

 

Get your child to show you every game. Make rules and apply them in regard to violence or un-Christlike values shown in the game (eg war games, “shoot-em-up” games)Get your child to show you every blank and unmarked disk or CD in the house. What programs are on there? Parents often find things given to children by their friends which may not be suitable.Learn how instant messaging programs are used. Teenagers, particularly girls, love the community feel of talking to multiple friends at once. How many hours per week are they spending? Who are they talking to?

Learn how music ‘playlists’ work—these play music on computers or storage devices (eg winamp, windows mediaplayer or ipod)

Find out who your child emails, messages, SMSs—who is in their address book?

Learn about your school policies for controlling internet use. Look for use of a very good content filtering program or system. Ask your children’s friends how easy it is to “beat” the system and check what they say with the school. This is not being melodramatic!

Talk to your children’s friends. You learn about who your child is with—and you get a better idea of what influences are affecting the peer group. It may take time to build trust so they really talk to you—but you will really know what’s happening in your child’s world.

 

Since the beginning of time, the conflict of the “two seeds” has played out in the heart of each person. We are offered “everything” by the Kingdom of Men, now. It takes faith to hold fast to a promise of a future we have not yet seen. Our actions and choices show that belief.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Phil 4:8).