An estimated 154 million Americans, 56 percent of the U.S. population, accessed the Internet last November. Though some estimates vary, the online community has grown by more than 900 percent over the past six years. User profiles indicate that the average user age (thirty-nine) is rising, and the average educational level (38 percent hold a college degree) is falling. Men and women, rich and poor, old and young — all may be found in the American online community. The Internet has now taken the front seat in worldwide communications, business applications, educational institutions, and media. The Internet has radically changed the way we think and the way we live. For many of us, it seemed to appear overnight. In reality, the Internet has been around for more than thirty years.
In 1957, the USSR took the lead in science and technology at the launch of the earth's first artificial satellite, Sputnik. In response, the United States Department of Defense formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to regain its global prominence. Over the next decade ARPA began developing the technology to build a "cooperative network" of computers for military purposes. In 1969, ARPA gave birth to ARPANET, an infant version of today's growing Internet. At first the Internet consisted of only four computers hosted by four American universities. In time ARPANET outgrew its militaristic purpose and academia found valuable applications for its use in education and much later in business. By 1971, the first email was sent and the "@" sign added to its protocol a year later. Between 1969 and 1987, the Internet grew from four computers to 10,000. In 1992, a year after the introduction of the World Wide Web, the number reached 1,000,000. In eight short years from 1992 to 2000, the number of host computers jumped from 1 million to over 93 million computers worldwide.
Analysts estimate that in the next decade the Internet population will include 75 to 85 percent of all Americans. As Christians, what are we to believe about the Internet and its role in our lives and the lives of our children? Our understanding of the use and role of the Internet at home, at work, and in our schools must start with our Christian worldview. The Christian worldview consists of beliefs in at least five major areas: God (Theological), Reality (Metaphysical), Knowledge (Epistemological), Humankind (Anthropological), and Ethics (Moral). The Christian worldview is rooted in the nature and character of God. (See The Christian and the Internet at the bottom of the page.)
What are the personal and practical implications of our Christian perspective on the Internet? First, we must be educated about the resources, the opportunities, and the dangers that the Internet presents. Analysts have discovered that Americans are most likely to engage in two subjects online: sex and religion. One recent study showed that 21 percent (20 million Americans) seek religious or spiritual information online, compared to 18 percent who bank online and 15 percent who visit auction sites such as eBay. For example, at one particular site, Internet users pay money for "experts" to answer questions on a host of subjects. One girl offered to pay $25 to know how she could get to heaven. People are paying to hear the good news of Jesus Christ! As Christians, we need to seek opportunities to extend the ministry of the church to the global needs of our world through technologies such as the Internet. But, while the Internet offers ministry opportunities, it also offers unwanted solicitations.
Religion is a far second to the net's most sought after subject — sex. Of the 154 million Americans online, an estimated 23-30 percent of the American Internet population visits adult entertainment sites each month. To bring it closer to home, a report on the nation's youth found that one in four children, ages ten to seventeen, encountered unwanted pornography on the Internet. In a 1999 survey, 53 percent of teenagers encountered Web sites containing pornographic, hate-based, and violent material. Ninety-one percent of these teenagers indicated they found this material while conducting research for school or just surfing the web. Both children and adults need to be aware and proactive in protecting themselves and their friends and family from the dangers of the Internet.
I am often asked by parents, "How do I know if my children are visiting these sites or have been solicited by unwanted predators?" Parents may look for two types of clues — behavioral clues and physical clues. Behavioral clues include: late night Internet usage, long periods of time on the Internet, withdrawal from others, inability to handle stress, and depression. The physical clues include: pornographic solicitations via email (though this is not always a sure sign), the names of files in the History, Cookies, and Temporary Internet Files folders located in the Windows directory, and the Recycle Bin. If your child covers his or her tracks well and all else fails, then purchase Norton's System Works by Symantec. This software can retrieve deleted files off your computer even after they have been emptied from your recycle bin.
We live in a new age. While the Internet offers a wealth of resources, ideas, and educational opportunities for both adults and children, we must also be aware of its pitfalls. Christians need to be equipped and ready to handle the dangers the Internet brings to our cities and our communities.
Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself and your children.
1. Become educated about the Internet and how to use it. For parents, have your child teach you.
2. Know the legal mechanisms in place to protect you and your children.
3. Utilize filter software or a filtered Internet Service Provider. Even though it is not foolproof, it can help prevent unintentional material from making it to your desktop. Visit www.getnetwise.org or www.cyberangels.com to find the right software or ISP for you and your family.
4. Seek out an accountability partner. For parents, set Internet usage guidelines with your children.
5. Move your computer to the family living room.
6. For parents, spend time with your children online and offline.
When adults and children can look to God and to each other and make a promise of prevention, a promise of purity, and a promise to publicize their faith in Jesus Christ, the Internet can become one of the greatest tools in the ministry of the church. Will you make that promise today?
Reprinted with permission from Excitement: A Magazine of Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas, June/July 2001.
The Christian and the Internet
Once we establish a Christian worldview, we can then take this five-faceted template and build a Christian perspective on the Internet.
God is ever-present and all-knowing. The Internet — its contributors, its content, and its consumption — is all laid out before God. Nothing remains unseen. It is a part of God's creation.
All reality begins with God and is revealed to us through God's revelation of Himself. Every action, thought, or attitude expressed in "virtual reality" is committed before God in ultimate reality.
All knowledge and information contained on the Internet should be tested against the truth of Scripture.
The content of the Internet is a reflection of its contributors. The Internet is a world without boundaries and a society with very few laws; therefore, Christians and their families must exercise great caution in their use of the Internet.
For the Christian, the ethical and moral dilemma is resolved in the study and practice of God's Word. The Bible is our instruction manual for daily living, so that we may experience the fullness of God's will for our lives.
David E. Drinnon is Assistant Pastor of Adult Ministries at Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas.