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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why the Internet is Full of Temptations (and what we can do about it)

This is a guest post from Luke Gilkerson. He is the general editor and primary author of Breaking Free, the Covenant Eyes blog. Luke has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and is working on an MA in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary. Before working at Covenant Eyes he spent six years as a college campus minister. He is also the author of Porn in the Pews: Teaching Your Church about the Dangers of Pornography. He lives in Michigan with his wife Trisha and two sons, Bradley and Cameron.

How many times have you heard a story about an Internet-related problem in the past few months? I’m not just talking about things like identity theft or cyber crime—I’m talking about all the poor uses of the Internet that seem to ruin lives and dissolve our most important relationships.
  • Headlines speak of the latest Internet predator caught in the act of grooming a teenager. 
  • New reports come out weekly about how slanderous words exchanged over e-mail or Facebook lead to broken hearts or shattered reputations.
  • More and more studies show modern families are becoming engrossed in technology, so much so their face-to-face relationships are suffering.
  • Literally millions of websites with graphic and degrading sexual content are available to see at the click of a mouse, and this doesn’t even include all the “grey areas” of temptation and titillation.

The common thread

 What is the common thread for all of these problems? Some want to blame the technology itself. The Internet has given us a level of accessibility that, perhaps, many people are not ready to have. While this is one common thread, I don’t believe is it the most important one. I believe the problem is not mostly technological, but relational.

One of the more insidious common threads that runs through Internet-related dangers is that of anonymity. The Internet gives us the ability to experience, explore, and express ourselves in total secrecy. Knowing no one has to know what I do, what I see, or who I talk to often lowers our defenses and removes our inhibitions.

Many times, this cloak of secrecy brings out the worst in us and exposes us to the worst in others. We are like Gyges of Lydia (mentioned by Plato), who found a magic ring that could make him invisible. Intoxicated with his new power, this once-humble shepherd snuck into the palace, seduced the queen, plundered the palace, and assassinated the king. In a similar fashion, today we hide behind monitors and smartphones so we can be seduced by flickering pixels, squander our time in endless amusement, and slaughter one another with our words.

Accountability vs. anonymity

 In our always-plugged-in culture, the battle must be waged on two fronts.
The first front is the gate of our own hearts. Try as we might, we cannot blame technology for corrupting us. Technology has only exposed how easily corruptible we really are.

The first front, therefore, is our accountability to God Himself. We must admit to ourselves and to God our weaknesses when it comes to living lives of faith in the Information Age. We must train ourselves and our children to recognize that, despite the apparent anonymity of the online world, nothing escapes God’s penetrating gaze. He is always present.

The second front of the battle is our connection to other people. Despite the fact that much of our time online is private time, we should not be seduced into believing what we do online does not impact others.

The second front, therefore, is our accountability to each other. We must live transparent and open lives before those we trust. Doing this shatters the strong illusion of anonymity, which stops temptations and traps before they start. For the sake of ourselves and our children, we must counter the culture of secrecy with a new culture of accountability.

A tool that makes the job easier

The reason I’m so passionate about this is because I’ve spoke to countless people who have experienced the dark side of the Internet. I’ve listened to wives cry over their husband’s raging porn addictions. I’ve seen fathers bury their heads in anxiety over the photos their son saw online late at night. I’ve spoken with young women who, in their teen years, were seduced by men three times their age online. I’ve spoken to people whose reputations are shattered because of the vicious words shared the Internet.

I’ve also spoken to many people whose lives have been changed by Internet accountability. This is why I love my job at Covenant Eyes.

For 11 years Covenant Eyes’ goal has been the same: provide people with practical tools that encourage accountability online. Over a decade ago we pioneered an Internet accountability service, providing people with easy-to-read reports of how the Internet is used in their home so they can be transparent with others. Over the years, and with the help of hundreds of thousands of comments from our members, these reports have gone through many evolutions.

The most recent evolution was a brand new web rating system. Many people benefit from rating systems for other forms of entertainment—like movies or video games—and yet the Internet is one of the primary sources for entertainment and information today. Why not rate the Web too?

This is exactly what Covenant Eyes does. When you use Covenant Eyes on your PC, Mac, or mobile device, every web address you visit is catalogued and rated according to six age-based ratings (like T for Teen or M for Mature). All of that information is put into a report and e-mailed regularly to a friend, mentor, spouse, parent, or anyone else you want to see it. The Web ratings make the report easy to scan for relevant information.

Plus, the reports are totally customizable. Perhaps you’re a parent who wants to see what your 10-year-old does online: you might want to see when Teen websites are accessed. Or perhaps you’re a guy who is holding your friend from church accountable: you might want to see only when Mature or Highly Mature sites are accessed. It’s entirely up to you.

The reason for all this detail is simple: Covenant Eyes knows the most important element of accountability is conversation. If a report is too cumbersome, includes too much or not enough information, or doesn’t highlight potential problems, then informed conversations don’t happen.

And in a world where sin thrives in the anonymity of the Web, can we afford not to expose these dark places to the light of accountability? 

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