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New Website Offers Guidance on Internet Safety
Parents and other adults wanting to help children and teens safely navigate the world of the Internet, cell phones and other mobile devices will welcome a brand new website. The Faith and Safety website (FaithandSafety.org) is a joint project of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Department and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
The website hopes to serve as “a starting point” for parents “who may not know where to turn, what to do or just need some quick information and practical guidance.”
Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, comments that children look to parents “for wisdom and guidance.” However, he thinks “many parents feel somewhat ill-equipped to help their children traverse the unfamiliar terrain of the digital social world.”
Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Communication, hopes the website can “meet families and young people where they are,” which increasingly “is in the digital world.”
“We believe the digital world offers immense opportunities for young people to grow in their faith, learn about Christ and connect to peers around the world who share their beliefs,” Bishop Wester writes in a message of welcome.
But “as with any new opportunity, there are also risks,” he says. The greatest risks involve “young people’s privacy and safety, and their exposure to improper content.”
The Faith and Safety website is educational, yet more than that. Among its current offerings, I think parents will find extended discussions of such topics as cell phones and cyberbullying greatly helpful.
“Cyberbullying is bullying using the Internet or digital media,” and “in some ways it can be worse than traditional bullying,” the website explains. For “the content remains online, it’s able to be spread widely and quickly, and can become invasive.”
However, the website is not restricted to sharing needed information and advice on parental concerns like cyberbullying, apps and games or unwelcome websites. It wants to start parent-children conversations.
“Family Discussion Starters” help parents “identify topics to talk about” with children. “Real safety in the digital world is all about active, involved, loving parenting,” the website states.
Parents and children have different expectations for cell phones. According to the website, “Kids want cell phones for games and social communication.” Parents want children “to have a cell phone for safety.”
Parents need to know that giving a cell phone to a child means giving “a portable computer with mobile Internet capability.” The website urges parents to “know a phone’s features and capabilities” before purchasing it.
Today, “77 percent of kids ages 12-17 have a cell phone,” the website notes. The cell phone is “the primary form of communication for teens,” who more frequently use it to send texts than make calls. Clearly, cell phones should “be a primary focus” for digital safety.
I mention the website’s attention to cell phones simply to show how it assists parents both as an educational tool and a guide to communicating with youths about the purposes and risks of our complex digital universe.
It is “important to discuss issues of privacy, inappropriate texts/photos, and safety,” with children, the website advises. It talks with parents who want “extra safety features” about “special phones designed just for kids.”
The website lists concerns for parents and children to discuss before a child gets a cell phone. Teens need to understand, for example, that anyone who texts, answers email, surfs the web or conducts “any other cell-phone activity” while driving “can cause a deadly accident.”
Some other issues to discuss are the use of cell phones to send “a sexually explicit text, photo or video” and cell-phone usage in classroom cheating or cyberbullying.
The Discussion Starters accompanying the website’s cell-phone discussion suggest that parents and children talk, for example, about the child’s reasons for wanting a cell phone, appropriate times to use it, school rules and even the phone’s monthly costs.
Parental Role Modeling
Faith and Safety not only provides advice to share with children. It urges parents to model the online and cell-phone behavior they hope to see in their children.
It asks parents: “Do you use your phone at the dinner table? Do you text while talking with others? Do you instantly pull out your phone when a new message arrives? Do you text while driving? Do you use computers in public areas of the house or do you habitually bring them into your bedroom behind a closed door?”
The website recommends putting “all computers in a public space” at home. It says, “If computers absolutely must be put in a private room, have a policy that doors must be open when they are in use.”
Children, it emphasizes, need to be reminded “that nothing on the Internet is private and that people online are not always truthful and may not be who they say they are.”
Despite these concerns, however, the website makes clear that “digital safety is not about spying on your kids or finding out everything they have been doing online.” It adds that while some oversight of “kids’ digital habits is part of responsible parenting, teaching you how to spy on your kids is not” this guide’s intent.
The intent, it explains, “is to promote healthy dialogue within your family on how to use technology appropriately.” It says:
“Let your kids know that you will periodically be reviewing the sites that all of you, as a family, visit. Don’t do this in an authoritarian way, but rather as a way to engage your kids in dialogue.”