An Urgent Appeal to Parents in the Digital Age
Your Children and Personal Electronic Devices
By Brad Schmidt
Director of Youth Ministry
Christ the King Catholic Church, Ann Arbor, MI
I’ve been working in youth ministry for twelve years. The teens in my parish are fantastic teens who desire to be holy, who aren’t afraid to fight for their freedom, and who really want to love the Lord. Lately we’ve noticed a trend that more and more of our teens are engaging in risky behavior on their iPods and cell phones – behavior that isn’t just unhealthy, but behavior that’s sinful and even illegal. This problem is widespread, and it’s not new, but it’s expanding at an alarming rate. I’ve been talking to parents about the need for them to talk to their kids about sex, pornography, chastity and the like for years. I’ve given them the resources they need to help ensure that their children are protected online and on their phones, but the message just hasn’t seemed to sink in that iPods and cell phones are a major challenge to purity in our day and age.
This information was originally directed only toward parents of middle and high school students, but this topic is too important, and it is one that affects all of us – not just parents of teens and tweens. Many of your kids are using an iPod Touch, iPad, or even smart phone from a very early age. If your children use any of these devices, or if they will use these devices, it’s important for you to be aware of the precautions you absolutely must take to protect them. This topic is critical, and one which most of us haven’t noticed, or even downplayed, in the past. The age of the “smart phone” and personal electronic devices has caught all of us off guard in some sense, and I’m hoping to make clear the reality of the situation we’re now living in – which in many ways is radically different than it was even a couple of years ago. Undoubtedly the situation will get even more tricky as your children get older; the sooner you educate yourself about the issues and technology and implement appropriate parental controls the less likely your children will fall into many of the dangerous behaviors that these devices can foster.
The Situation Today
If your child has an iPod touch, smart phone, laptop, tablet (like an iPad or a Kindle Fire) or mobile video game device, your child has in his or her possession at this moment a pornography device. That’s right – even an iPod Touch. With this device, your children have access to unlimited pornographic images and movies, the ability to create and distribute their own pornography, and the ability to connect with other people for the purpose of sex – virtually or even in person. This does not have to be the case – with appropriate parental controls enabled, these devices are much safer for your children to use. It is crucial to act, today, to ensure that these devices are properly safeguarded and monitored against pornographic use, because this is becoming an increasing problem, even among good, Christian children.
Your child’s smart phone, iPod touch, tablet, or laptop computer are not in and of themselves bad things. Nor are some of the apps that they enjoy using. Smart phones and laptops are now almost a required part of our lives, even as early as elementary and middle school, and that’s not going to change. But they do, however, open up the possibility for the enemy to attack and enslave your children in moments of weakness if not properly safeguarded.
Many of the teens, middle school students and even younger children here have unrestricted access to problematic material and apps (apps are programs that run on their mobile devices). Typically, those that struggle with sexual sin are frustrated at their lack of self-control in this area, and the primary way most have access to pornography is on these devices. Our youth ministry team and I have talked with teens that are homeschooled, attend Catholic schools and public high schools who are struggling with this. I’ve witnessed middle school students at middle school events using Snapchat – one of the more dangerous apps kids can be using. There are teens who have admitted to us that they have engaged in sexting – sending nude photos of themselves – to their friends and to strangers (Sexting is another new problem that’s grown in the last couple of years; I found this information helpful, and you might as well: http://ow.ly/3xuGfX and http://ow.ly/3xuGgS). We cannot afford to continue to ignore this problem or allow ourselves to be ignorant about the technology in our kids’ hands.
This, in a way, has snuck up on a lot of us unexpectedly. The vast majority of us didn’t realize what a dangerous device a simple iPod could be without jumping through some hoops to make it more safe. We as a Christian community have taken various steps over time to ensure that our kids grow up and thrive without being harmed by the overload of negative influences the culture offers – some of us don’t have cable, are discerning about the music, TV, movies and even books that are consumed in our homes. But the iPod and smart phones have, for the most part, flown under the radar. Not only do these devices offer easy access to pornography, they also offer unrestricted access to the world when parental controls are not properly engaged. This is the same thing, or worse, as putting a TV in your child’s bedroom that has access to the Playboy channel, but even more dangerous because it’s interactive and invites participation, and they’re small, private and portable. One youth ministry team member told me that a teen even admitted to using her smart phone to access pornography in the back seat of the car while with her family (yes, this problem affects both girls and boys). To get an idea about how teens’ use of media has changed over the years, check out this infographic.
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What Do We Do?
You have GREAT kids. My first reaction when I started learning about these things was “Thank God this isn’t a problem for solid Christian kids! Our kids are in love with Jesus and serious about their faith!” I’m sure that’s what your gut is saying too. I was wrong. Even still, scripture exhorts us to “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8). Your holy and wonderful children are prime targets for our enemy, and during this particular stage of development sexuality is their biggest weakness – the enemy is exploiting it quite freely good Christian teens. It is your responsibility as parents to assist your children in being “sober” and “watchful.” You have the most difficult – and most important – job in the world, and your influence when it comes to safeguarding technology cannot be understated. Your attention to this area of your family’s life has the power to make all the difference!
Most of these devices, even smart phones without a data plan, can access the internet through free, unfiltered wifi readily available almost anywhere. Most filtering software for phones (and iPods) require that the native web browsers be disabled – which is an essential part of the parental control options. Information about these parental controls and filtering and monitoring solutions are included at the end of this post.
It’s been suggested to me by some parents that the reason they don’t help their kids steer clear from these things is that they themselves struggle. I realize there may be many parents who are challenged by pornography or masturbation. This may cause you to feel you do not have the moral authority to engage your children on these issues without feeling hypocritical. Please know that is a blatant lie of the enemy. Even if we struggle with gluttony, we still want our teach our children how to have healthy meals. Even if we struggle with anger, we still want to give our children tools for dealing with anger in their own lives. Alcoholic parents are just as responsible for making sure their kids don’t fall into drinking as non-alcoholic parents. We cannot get trapped in the lie that we can’t guide them if we struggle. The topic of sexual sin is no different. Satan wants us to think it’s hypocritical to train our kids in the areas of our lives where we struggle. But that’s a lie, and our fallen tendencies toward fear, selfishness, and laziness makes it easy to believe. You owe your children more than that, and the Lord has invested you with this grave responsibility – no one else. Thankfully, he also provides the grace to do what is difficult. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by this topic.
Trust me, believing that your kids would never engage in behavior like this is on the surface is a good thing. But at the same time, believing that your children are immune is an effective tool of the enemy to keep you from acting on this issue, and avoid having difficult – but vital – conversations with your children in the area of sexuality. Our culture is saturated with sexually charged images and messages, we must help them develop the skills to deal with the situation on our terms. That becomes impossible if you put open access to all of it in their hands through these devices. If your kids really aren’t involved in this type of behavior, then you’ve done no harm by engaging appropriate parental controls and talking to them about it. If they ARE involved, then you may well have initiated the process that leads them to freedom. Don’t allow the enemy to keep you silent for any reason.
Am I missing anything here that might be helpful? This list is in no way exhaustive. If you’ve got any suggestions, please email me at [email protected]
Many applications seem harmless, and your teens use them for harmless reasons. Just because your son or daughter has Snapchat or Kik doesn’t’ mean that they’re sexting, so don’t come down hard on them for having them. That doesn’t change the fact that they are a door wide open to the enemy to exploit in a moment of weakness. Your children should not have access to any of these:
Twitter: I hate to say it, but Twitter has a LOT of pornography easily accessible. Twitter doesn’t have any parental control or filters that I can find. It’s hard for me to say this, but I wouldn’t allow this app on any mobile device whatsoever. Twitter, however, is quickly becoming one of the most popular social media platforms out there. If your child has a Twitter account, it’s better to remove it from their mobile devices and only allow them to access it from a computer, where the screen is much more public.
Snapchat: Offers the illusion of a fleeting photo that disappears from both people’s phones after a limited time. Designed as a “Sexting” app. Many of your kids only use this for “safe” reasons, yet I still strongly recommend banning it from all devices in your house – the danger it poses is too great a risk.
Kik: A free messaging app, often used to exchange nude photos. No parental controls possible, and it opens up many other apps inside it, or “cards,” many of which are sexual in nature.
Tindr: A dating app designed to help adults “hook up”
Grindr: A gay “hook up” app.
Meet24: Another “hook up” app, which according to some reviews has a lot of teens participating.
Poof: Allows teens to hide apps they don’t want their parents to see with the touch of a button.
Honorable Mention: Instagram. I’m not sure that you should ban Instagram from your teens’ phones. Nude photos aren’t allowed on Instagram, but there sure are a lot of scantily clad people readily available. If your son or daughter uses it, please read through the Instagram Parents Guide: http://ow.ly/3xuGof
I recommend reading up on some of these. A simple Google search for “apps parents should watch out for” will be helpful to you. Keep in mind, technology moves quickly, so the apps you should be aware of are ever changing. Do this often. This article is pretty good, even though it’s almost a year old: http://ow.ly/3xuGoy
On an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, you can see what apps your teens have downloaded, even if they’re not currently on the phone. To do so, open up the “App Store” app, go to “updates” at the bottom, and then at the top of that list, click “Purchased.” When you do that, you’ll be taken to a screen that says “all” or “Not on this iPhone (or iPod, etc.). That will give you a list of every app your son or daughter has had at one time, even if it’s been deleted.
Filtering and Monitoring Solutions
Several options are listed here, you should investigate all of them to decide which one is best for your family situation.
Accountability and filtering software for Mac, PC, Android and iOS ( iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad) devices. Also includes a great blog and resources for parents to help their teens. The family plan is $13.99/month for an unlimited number of users. Accountability and filtering are both included.
TeenSafe offers smart phone monitoring for your child’s devices. It offers the opportunity to monitor text messages, Facebook and Instagram activity and more. TeenSafe works on both Apple and Android devices. TeenSafe is $14.99 a month with a discount given if you pay annually.
Accountability software that works on the PC, Mac, iOS, and Android devices. There’s a free version, and a more robust version for $6.99 a month or $64.99 per year for unlimited devices.
Parental Control Instructions
Generally speaking Apple products have the best parental control options out there. If you’re considering allowing your teen to get a smart phone, it may be best to stick to Apple devices for that reason.
This article has information about setting parental Controls for your teen’s device, whether it be an iPod, iPhone, iPad, Android (Galaxy, Amazon Fire, etc.), or Windows based device. If you’re not sure where to start, start here: http://ow.ly/3xuGpy
Notes on Parental Controls on an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad
More detailed instructions for using parental controls are online at http://ow.ly/3xuGql.
I strongly recommend that you restrict all access to installing apps, in addition to other things you may feel are appropriate. The fact is that there are so many problematic apps, and many of them aren’t properly age-restricted in the App store. This way, when your son or daughter wants to install something new, they have to go through you so you can do a little research on the app, just as you would with a movie they wanted to see.
Similarly, you should definitely have filtering/accountability software on your teens’ devices, and only allow that web browser on the device. For this to be effective, you must restrict access to Safari in the parental control section.
Notes on Parental Controls for Android Devices
Not all Android devices are labeled that way, but if your teen doesn’t have an iPhone, iPod, iPad, or Windows Phone, chances are it’s an Android Device. Native parental controls are more limited on Android Devices, so you may need to download another solution. This article has some advice about which apps might work for you. http://ow.ly/3xuGpW