I’ve done it both ways. I used to be a total non-techie who rarely got online, and then only to send an email to Grandma. Then I became a tech-savvy person with membership in several online forums, got a Facebook account, and formed online friendships all over the world. My close friends now include those I’ve only met online and those I’ve met face to face. I therefore feel qualified to pontificate on some issues regarding your children’s friendships in our modern “Facebook society.”
First off, let’s see what the Bible says about friendship. There are many Scriptures about both choosing friends and being a friend. One of the most famous passages on friendship is in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” This tells us that God designed friendship for protection, for encouragement, and for strength.
Since friends apparently fill such important roles in our lives, we would do well to choose our friends wisely. Which brings us to another set of passages. I Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” Proverbs 13:20 adds to that. “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.” So we can safely conclude from God’s Word that friendship is important and we should choose friends who are wise, rather than foolish.
Now we have some standards by which to explore the topic of your children’s use of Facebook and other online friendship-forming venues.
The first question is can truly wise and encouraging friendships be formed online? I can answer from my own experience – yes, they can. Second question: Is there danger of online forums and friendships degenerating into time-wasting and pure silliness? I can once again answer from my own experience – yes, indeed there is. So how do parents navigate these dangers with their children in order to promote good friendships and discourage time-wasting silly business? Here are some basic guidelines to consider.
Avoid impersonal online activities such as quizzes, games, and lists of random and pointless facts about yourself. These can be fun – and addictive. They can waste a huge amount of time for no real purpose. Does it truly matter if your friends know “what kind of vegetable you would be” or “what movie star you most identify with”? This is not generally the stuff of deep friendships. Although it is enjoyable to occasionally engage in a frivolous activity with a friend, truly helpful friendships involve much more than silliness.
Encourage real conversation online. Rather than a quick note on someone’s “wall,” send a real message that includes several paragraphs and is spelled correctly. Join a debate forum and learn to coherently and persuasively argue your position. Take note if an online friend is having trials or sickness and come up with creative, encouraging notes or cards for them. Use the internet to communicate in a thoughtful and helpful manner.
As a side note to this, parents should be wary of allowing texting via cell phones. Texting rarely involves messages of any depth, and almost always requires poor spelling to maximize word count. Texting should be limited to necessary quick questions and comments, rather than lots of mindless, shallow, sound-bite “conversation.”
Encourage your child not to “friend” every person they know or every person that asks them. It’s tempting to want to “one-up” others by increasing your friends list. But help your child ask himself these questions: Is it beneficial to be reading that person’s status messages? Are the pictures and videos they post worth watching? Would it be edifying to chat with them online? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then it may not be a good idea to “friend” that person. Remember, bad company corrupts good character – even online.
Be aware of safety and security online. Don’t reveal birthdays, addresses, phone numbers, lists of family members, or other personal information. Here’s a scary story I heard last week. A friend of mine found a woman’s driver’s license lying in the parking lot. He got on Facebook, found the girl and discovered that she had listed all her contact information and her entire daily schedule (she was in college) on her Facebook account! From this, my friend was able to physically go and meet this girl without ever having talked to her and give back the driver’s license. All I could think was that it was a good thing the license hadn’t been found by a stalker – that girl had put way too much of her personal info online!
Keep your child accountable for his online behavior. Children under age 18 should have their online activity monitored in an age-appropriate manner. Parents should have password access to their children’s online activities. This is not only important for safety reasons, it also gives the parent opportunity to provide input on how the child conducts himself online. I’ve seen too many teenagers who thought nothing of rudely blasting someone who disagreed with them, or posting inappropriate photos and videos. I know those kids’ parents would be very unhappy with their child’s behavior– if they knew about it. It’s too easy to be anonymous and avoid repercussions for bad behavior in the online world. Make sure that your child knows he is answerable to you for how he acts in public – whether it’s online public or face-to-face public.
Balance online friendships with real, face-to-face friendships. A friend was recently lamenting to me about being at a restaurant with extended family reunion and nearly all the kids were too busy texting on their cell phones to bother talking to those around them. This is unbalanced and immature behavior.
In real life, “iron sharpens iron” much more effectively as we learn to get along with people’s foibles and quirks. Online, you can simply shut someone off if they become annoying. In real life, you have to live with them. Children need to learn real-life, interpersonal skills as part of growing up. Make sure that your children work just as hard (if not harder) at their real-life relationships as they do at their online relationships. This means learning to love and enjoy their siblings and parents. It means learning to sit and listen to Grandpa or learning to work on a project with Aunt Beaulah.
Make very sure that your children also work on their relationship with God. The Lord is not just a Facebook friend you can shut off when you don’t like what He says. In fact, trying to shut Him off can cause some pretty serious consequences! (Think Jonah and the big fish!) We all need to develop daily communication with God, the Sustainer of our lives. He provides loving daily guidance to us if we will take the trouble to learn to listen to Him. Quiet time reading the Bible and praying is far more useful and necessary than online time with friends. Make sure these are priorities that your whole family observes.
Set clear rules and boundaries. Once your family has talked over these issues, make some clear rules and post them near the computer. Concrete expectations help both you and your child make sure you’re working towards the same goals. Rules might include limiting the number of hours per day allowed online, specifying what information is not allowed to be posted (phone numbers, birthdays, etc.); and for young children, you might require that any post in a public forum must be read by you first. Another good idea would be to require that the whole family does Bible study and prayer time before anyone is allowed on the computer. Keep the computer in a public area of your house so that it’s not easy to “cheat.” Each family is individual, so you can assess what rules and guidelines would make the most sense for your family.
The internet is a marvelous tool. Like any tool, it can be used for great good or great harm. So it’s important to train your children in how to use the internet for good, kingdom-advancing activities. Happy surfing!
Heather Sheen is a homeschool graduate who also completed her college degree at home. She enjoys playing harp, working for her dad’s business, and volunteering as a living historian. Read more articles by the Sheen family at www.homeschoolfamilyforum.com.