Protecting Sheep from Wolves: A Christian Parent’s Guide to Online Safety

By: Alyssa Mendez
With access to cell phones growing among children and teens, access to inappropriate/harmful material and exposure to strangers is also a growing concern for parents. Learn about the importance of online safety and how you can help your child(ren) safely navigate the web in this article that features wisdom from an FBI Special Agent.

10 years old.

This is the average age a child receives a cell phone.

11 years old.

This is the average age a child is exposed to pornographic material online.

Though technology isn’t inherently a bad thing, there are potential risks that parents need to be aware of as access to technology expands among children and teens. They are growing up in a very different time than their parents did. For this reason, parents need to equip themselves with knowledge and implement safeguards that will help their children navigate the online world.

Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale’s Family Ministry recently hosted a virtual Parenting Talk event to shed light on the topic of online safety and offer practical suggestions. Leading the discussion was FBI Special Agent Oliver – a follower of Jesus and a family man who is passionate about keeping kids safe.

Oliver focused on John 10:11-14 and referenced Jesus’ example to inspire parents to assume the role of a Good Shepherd in the lives of their children:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…

UNDERSTANDING THE THREAT

Between 2019 and 2020, there was a 97.5% nationwide increase in reports of online exploitation involving children, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (O’Donnell, 2021).

The ability to hide behind screens leads people to say or do things they wouldn’t otherwise say or do in person. However, this doesn’t make their behavior any less harmful to others. Their inappropriate virtual advances not only taint children’s innocence, but can also result in mental health challenges, potentially dangerous situations, and even suicide.

So what kind of “wolves” exactly are parents protecting their children from? On top of cyberbullies, pornographers, hackers, and scammers, below are types of online predators you may not be as familiar with:

  • “Sextortionists” – individuals who use non-physical forms of coercion, such as blackmail, to acquire sexual content from a child, engage in sex with a child, or obtain money from a child.

  • “Travelers” – individuals who go across state lines to engage in sexual activity with a minor they meet online

“You would do whatever it takes to keep your child safe from evil people with evil intentions in the physical world, but parents often don’t apply that same intensity when it comes to keeping their kids safe online,” Oliver said. “As Christians, we should not conform to this world. Just because other parents are giving their kids free range on their devices, doesn’t mean we should.”
"Just because other parents are giving their kids free range on their devices, doesn't mean we should."
He compared children going online without supervision or rules to allowing them to wander a major city by themselves. Surely, parents would think twice about allowing that.

IMPLEMENTING SAFEGUARDS

Now that we have a greater understanding of the dangers that exist on the world wide web, let’s dive into what steps you can immediately begin putting into place in your own home.

Oliver is an advocate for parents establishing healthy authority when it comes to children’s technology use. He considers this a middle ground as opposed to sheltering them completely or allowing them to have unrestricted access. This means that rules and supervision ought to be established as it relates to:

    • Device type – laptop, cell phone, gaming system, iPad, etc.
    • Activity type – social media, gaming, texting, FaceTime, etc.
    • Length and timing of activity – establishing time limits and certain times of day tech can be used; most phones have settings to limit screen time and app access
    • Location of activity – computers should remain in public spaces in the home; cell phones should also remain out of children’s bedrooms, especially at night.

“When kids are young, there needs to be a lot of authority and discipline. The way we parent the first six years sets them up for the rest of life,” Oliver said. “As they get older in age and maturity, we should give them more freedom as they gain trust. But we often see the opposite.”
"When kids are young, there needs to be a lot of authority and discipline... as they get older in age and maturity, we should give them more freedom as they gain trust."
Oliver also recommended that parents look into apps, programs, and features that are designed to protect children from inappropriate material online. Below are a few he mentioned; please note that these are not formal endorsements:

    • Covenant Eyes – helps individuals live a porn-free life; you can set parental controls and be notified of your child’s web activity, which can help keep kids accountable.
    • Circle – a customizable solution that lets you manage screen time and monitor all websites and apps across all your family’s connected devices.
    • Safe Search Kids – a kid-friendly search engine powered by Google; provides kid-safe internet filtering and parental control apps.
    • Cell-phone provider solutions – consult your cell phone provider and see what they offer (i.e. Just Kids by Verizon, AT&T Secure Family, SyncUP KIDS by T-Mobile, etc.)
    • Alternative mobile devices Gabb Wireless and Pinwheel offer sleek-looking smartphones without web access, social media, apps, games, ads, and other features.
    • Built-in security features – iPhones have features that can prevent users from downloading apps or visiting certain websites (note that software updates can reset these settings!); Nintendo Switch also offers a parental control app that can limit the communication your child has with other users as well as their screen time.

Bark, Qustodio, Canopy, and Google Family Link are also popular parental control tools worth exploring. Devote some time to doing research and determining how resources like these could be beneficial to your family. Also, never underestimate the simple act of reviewing your child(ren)’s devices regularly and randomly.

VALUING OPEN DIALOGUE

In the same way Jesus says “I know my own and my own know me,” there needs to be that same level of intimacy between parents and children, Oliver said. What does this look like practically speaking?

    • Regularly engaging and playing with your child(ren) – start when they’re young!
    • Being quick to listen and slow to speak
    • Establishing an open-door policy
    • Looking for teachable moments
    • Studying your child(ren) and establishing their “baseline” behavior to better recognize abnormal behavior

And perhaps most importantly, Oliver emphasized the importance of making sure that children know they can ask their parents ANYTHING; no topics are off the table. It’s better that they hear from you first than someone else, or resorting to the internet for answers. Be prepared to give them a straight answer (that’s age appropriate), because that’s what they’re looking for.

By establishing this high level of trust, your child(ren) will be more likely to approach you in the event there is an issue or they are in danger as opposed to feeling shame and keeping secrets.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

If we want to keep our kids safe online, we must actively and ongoingly shepherd them by praying for their protection, establishing healthy boundaries, leaning into them, and having open dialogue, Oliver said. Below is an acronym he created that can remind you to do just that:

Shepherd
Protect
Engage
Alert
Know

“We as parents are responsible for keeping our children safe; don’t rely on other people or programs to teach your kids about these things,” Oliver said. “Perhaps the best thing we can do as moms and dads is point our kids to Jesus. We can’t always be there for them; they need the Holy Spirit living inside of them and have Jesus be their ultimate Shepherd.”
“Perhaps the best thing we can do as moms and dads is point our kids to Jesus."
Additional Resources:


 
Continue to invest in your family and parenting! Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale’s Family Ministry wants to equip and train you with free resources that will make a difference in your child(ren)’s life. Click here to register for their next Parenting Talk on Aug. 4!

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