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18 November 2020
Building a firm ‘heart’ foundation to safeguard our kids
Words Mark Hadley
It was simultaneously the most surprising and alarming email I had ever received from my son’s school. I was used to bland updates on bands and sporting teams. I wasn’t prepared for the principal to write this: “Please, do not under any circumstances allow your children to go online this afternoon.”
It was 14 September and a disastrous day for the relatively new social platform, TikTok. It typically serves its audience micro-videos of a few seconds in duration, showing contributors doing anything from enjoying fast food to doing crazy dance moves.
However, on 14 September, its recipe for success went badly wrong. The graphic suicide of a US veteran that had appeared as a live-stream on Facebook on 31 August migrated in a number of shorter forms to the platform’s streaming service.
TikTok’s model is to serve a quick succession of videos based on your search results, viewing history, past likes and, above all, popularity. Consequently, there doesn’t have to be any logical connection between the cute kitten video you’re watching with what comes next, beyond the assertion you’ll keep watching because everyone else did. And what everyone else was watching on that day were climactic fragments of a man killing himself with a handgun. The result was exponential. Jennifer Dudley, News Corp’s national technology editor, says most users were exposed to that explicit content completely by ‘accident’: “We’ve had a lot of reports of people seeing this video without actually searching for it. It’s just been recommended to them because the interactions on it are quite high.”
Hence the unprecedented warning from my son’s school principal. Yet, in one respect, Tiktok’s unintentional assault on our children’s eyes was a predictable result of the way social media now operates.
Tiktok’s formula for success is like that employed by other social giants like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube – a constantly tuned algorithm that aims to make its site so ‘sticky’ you never want to leave. Machine learning that weighs a user’s basic differentials (including age, sex, location) against their internet viewing history, their social groups, the products they show interest in … crafts a personal combination of content that is nigh on irresistible.
The Global Web Index reported that 2020 teens spend an average of nine hours a day online, with children aged 8-12 spending an average of six hours daily. In the Asian market in which Australia falls, the total usage of social media is two hours and 16 minutes daily. Tristan Harris, Google’s former Design Ethicist, says artificial intelligence has delivered internet services a staggering advantage in the war for our attention: “On the opposite side of the screen there are these thousands of engineers and super computers that have goals that are different than your goals – so who’s going to win?”
The ultimate goal is to deliver increasing audiences to advertisers or gain sign-ups for premium services, and the stickiest property of all is pornography. The online pornographic industry employs the same types of machine-learning techniques as social media, and accounts for more visitors each month than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter combined. If the best brains in the world are working to keep you addicted, then, as problematic as social media has become, this is an industry parents want to be far more concerned about. Let me illustrate with a personal dilemma:
I am the father of three sons. One came to me recently to share that he was struggling with pornography. My first response was to praise him for sharing his struggle with me; my second was to strategise. Together, we took stock of every internet gateway in the house that might tempt him. We installed content filters; we installed accountability software. We did everything we could to make them safe – and that’s when my problems really began.
It soon became clear that although I could lock down the more obvious portals like computers, smart phones and tablets, there were many others I could not. The software we were relying on was not backward compatible, so older phones, tablets and computers could not be secured. Furthermore, there was no way to patch the browser on his PS4. Nor could we lock down the browsers on our smart TVs, or Blu-ray players and digital recorders. And the expanding ‘internet of things’ means that those portals to pornography are only going to increase.
TikTok may have hosted the latest explosion online, but the internet is full of ticking time bombs where child safety is concerned. How do you keep your family safe in this interconnected world? How do you save children from social manipulation or the addictive qualities of internet pornography? Technology might supply the problem, but it is unlikely to supply the solution. There is a way, though, and unless you have been indulging in some serious helicopter parenting, you’ve probably been using it already.
You keep your children safe online the same way you ensure they are safe walking to school. Think it through with me:
Each of those steps can be equally applied to training a child to safely use the internet, as they can to seeing them safely to school. The emphasis in each case is not guarding them at every point but growing them as individuals. You don’t stop them going online any more than you stop them growing up. Instead, you seek to develop a heart that is prepared to meet the challenges they’re likely to face. This is the most powerful defence of all, and the point where the Bible comes into play.
The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier is credited with saying, “Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards.” His assertion was simple: the heart trains the hands. If children learn the right way, then they can apply it in any context later. We need only fear for those who haven’t been given a firm heart foundation. Xavier’s wisdom is just an extension of that which Jesus taught his followers in Luke chapter six, verse 45: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.”
If only a good heart promises good actions, then it behoves us as parents to concentrate on training a child’s heart before we train his mouse. The problem is that no purely moral system has ever managed to redeem a heart. Even the Bible acknowledges that laws only provide the opportunity for us to break them (Romans chapter 7, verse 8).
What we need then is someone who remakes rather than trains hearts, and this is a job description only God can fulfil. So, I find this truth at work: if I want to make my child safe online, the first thing I need to do is make them safe with God. It follows that regularly leading our children to the Bible, so that they might meet God and be worked on by his grace, is far more effective than any software solution.
The first steps to child protection on the internet begin off the internet. We cannot trust our children to technological solutions alone. We have to remind ourselves that parenting involves us preparing their hearts. The only thing that will make them safe from the world outside is God transforming them on the inside.