I Have a Question
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“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Mar. 2001, 58–59

How can our family take advantage of what is available on the Internet while avoiding objectionable material and people of questionable character?

Response by William C. Porter, an associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University and high priests group leader in the Orem Utah Cherry Hill Third Ward.

A computer and a telephone line provide the doorway to an online world of libraries, museums, businesses, schools, and, most of all, people—people all over the world willing to talk to you. Via the Internet, you and your children can find answers to those homework questions in an encyclopedia that you can’t afford for your home. You can study, on your own computer screen, brilliant, colorful images of the world’s great art. You can take classes. You can browse catalogs, buy airline tickets, and reserve hotel rooms. You can find people who share your interests, and you can correspond easily with extended family and newfound friends. The Internet is an exciting place.

However, parts of that online world are dangerous. Some Internet neighborhoods attract people and businesses you and your family need to avoid. Some people will want to steal your money and threaten your safety. Without parental guidance and supervision, children can put themselves in physical danger or encounter materials that are spiritual and intellectual poison.

Three things can help protect your family against the dangerous areas of the online world:

• Parental awareness

• Family rules

• Filtering

Parents need to make online use a family, not a private, activity. Put the computer in a room that the whole family uses, not in a child’s bedroom. Be aware of when and how your child uses the computer. Take time to learn how to use the Internet yourself. This can help make you aware of what your child is doing and will give you the vocabulary you need to talk to your child about the Internet.

Most parents are challenged to keep up with their children’s abilities to use electronic equipment. If one of your children already knows how to get on the Internet and use it, have that child teach you. You can explore that exciting new world together while you learn. If nobody in your family has computer skills, take a class at a nearby school or library. You need to learn enough to recognize what your child is doing. You may need to work to feel confident on the Internet, but you probably know people who can help you.

Family rules about computer use are essential. It is important that you and your family members agree on the who, how, when, and what of computer use. Parents should help children learn to protect themselves when dealing with other people online. One of the best sets of personal protection rules is found in the Boy Scout Handbook on page 15. These rules about safe online correspondence are part of a larger Youth Protection section in the front of the book. The computer rules deal with things such as:

• Telling parents about conversations with strangers or other online experiences.

• Not revealing personal information online.

• Never agreeing to meet an online acquaintance in person or by telephone without parental permission.

• Recognizing that people online may not be who they say they are.

In addition to teaching your children such rules for personal safety, you will need to stress the importance of immediately turning away from anything that makes them uncomfortable and anything sexual while exploring Internet sites.

You can keep some objectionable Internet material off your computer by filtering. Filtering blocks access to Internet sites with content that falls into certain categories such as sexually explicit material, violence, hate speech, gambling, and drugs/alcohol/tobacco. You can do the filtering yourself using personal filtering software, or you can subscribe to an Internet service provider that filters the Internet before it gets to your home.

Personal filtering software is available in stores or can be purchased on the Internet and downloaded into your computer. After you load the program into your computer, you can set it to block standard categories of content or you can customize most programs to screen things that you personally find objectionable. Most programs allow standard filters to be fine-tuned to eliminate specific sites that you want to keep out of your home.

Content can also be filtered by the company that provides your connection to the Internet. It works much the same way as personal filtering, except on a larger scale. With an Internet service provider that offers filtering, all subscribers are usually able to report sites that slip through the filter and have those sites considered for blocking out. Usually, reporting an objectionable site is as simple as clicking on an electronic button and filling in some blanks. However, reporting a site does not guarantee that it actually will be filtered out. If you already subscribe to an Internet service, you can ask whether content is filtered. If you are considering connecting to the Internet, you may want to look for a service provider that filters. Promotional literature or a telephone call will tell you which companies do this.

If your child uses the Internet at school, the content is usually filtered. However, at a public library the content may not be filtered. Schools have an obligation to protect children, but the community resource role of public libraries and the diversity of interests among patrons may make it difficult for librarians to restrict access to information, even for children. You will want to check what is available to your child wherever he or she uses the Internet, including in the homes of friends. If help is needed in addition to filtering, software is available that tracks Internet usage and reports to you via a quick review of images recently downloaded from the Internet.

The Internet appears destined to become more and more a part of everyday life, in and out of the Church. Parents need to help children enjoy the many benefits but avoid the real dangers. Adults need to be careful of the spiritual perils as well. Self-discipline is always the most effective protection. When we ignore the urge to satisfy curiosity about things the world may consider acceptable, we build strength to resist temptation and show that we value gospel standards. This example can help our children apply righteous standards for judging what is good and worthwhile as they mature and move increasingly in worldly environments outside our homes.

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Photo by Welden C. Andersen