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Technology
Recently, I got a chance to ask Ron DeHaas, the CEO of Covenant Eyes, about what he’s seeing in the whole realm of Christians and the internet. Here’s the interview: 1. What trends are you seeing in Internet viewing habits among Christians? Are more things becoming acceptable as the Internet develops? What a loaded question! The most important trend, the most disturbing trend, is what I call the “Awareness/Reality Gap”—that is, the widening gap between parental “awareness” and the “reality” of what is happening to their children. This gap has become so great that it threatens the fabric of families. The problem is that most parents are under-educated. They don’t know what’s safe and what’s not safe. They don’t know when to put their foot down about time their kids spend online and when to give their kids freedom. They want to understand more about how the prevalence of technology is affecting their kids mentally, socially, and spiritually, but they are totally unaware of the dangers of the Internet that threaten their families. As a result, 34% of children never receive a single word of instruction on how to use the Internet. Overall, Internet viewing habits among Christians look a lot like Internet viewing habits in the rest of the world. We have over 70,000 people using our accountability software right now, and 98.1% identify themselves as Christians. On average our databases track and rate over a billion web addresses visited by our subscribers every month, and we see the same sites on our radar that are popular in the rest of the world. In addition to pornography, Christians make use of Facebook, YouTube, and Google as much as anyone else does. On the positive side, we find that Christian parents are just as concerned now as in the past about how they should be raising their kids in our always-plugged-in culture. But there are obstacles on the path to good parenting. Sexual media and pornography may come to mind as the most obvious threat, but they are just the ugly tip of a very big iceberg. A growing number of children (33%) have unsupervised and unmonitored access of the Internet in their bedrooms, and parents are unaware of what they are viewing. An example that may be worth a parent’s look is the site stickam.com. Most parents would be horrified to find their teenage daughter on camera on this site, sitting in her bedroom chatting with strangers. But that is exactly what that site is. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of teenage girls on this site at this very moment, which you can see for yourself within 30 seconds from now. Parents often have a false sense of security if they use a filter that does not provide good accountability. Most filters are incapable of blocking the most common way that teenagers use to get around those filters, namely secure anonymizers. These secure sites go undetected by most filters, yet anything and everything can be viewed through them without being blocked. Parents need to know about these to avoid that false sense of security, yet more than 2/3 of parents don’t even know they exist! Another important and related trend is the objectification of relationships becoming “acceptable.” By “objectification,” I mean that people are more and more seen as objects, or worse yet, merely words on a screen, and less and less as real human beings who deserve honest and personal communication. Relationships are not only falsified through false scenarios of communication, but the really scary thing is what is happening to families and youth. This falsification now begins at a very young age, with 70% of children 8 to 18 years old going online every day. Nearly half (47%) of family members feel ignored because another family member spends too much time online. 56% of divorces reportedly (from the American Association of Matrimonial Lawyers) involve one spouse’s “obsessive interest in pornographic websites.” And that number will grow over the next 10 years because younger people just coming into marriageable age use pornography at a higher rate than older people. In answer to your second question, this trend does indeed lead to desensitization (acceptability from a societal standpoint) toward things that formerly were treated as taboo by most societies. 2. Tell us a little more about Covenant Eyes new web rating system. Because of the time pressures parents have, they need easier-than-ever tools to help them know what their children are doing on the Internet. That is why we have spent years and millions of dollars, developing our newly-released “Age-Based Content Rating System” which produces a rating similar to that of movies. And our reports are tuned to the age (or maturity) level of the user being monitored. So, for instance, if my 8-year old son and I view exactly the same sites in a week’s time, my son’s report (set at the “Teen” level) would include sites like Facebook, Netflix, etc. – in addition to any “bad” sites. Yet even though I view exactly the same sites, my report (set at the “Mature” level) would only show sites rated Mature, like Victoria Secret, Sports Illustrated swimsuits, etc. The software is so flexible, both my son and I can use the same computer but have different reports. The report, of course, is just a tool, and is meant to be a beginning point of communication…real, honest, personal communication. The whole point is to get a report that gives you the right amount of information so you can have a discussion about how the Internet should or shouldn’t be used. 3. How do you make rating decisions? And how is the rating data displayed? It’s obviously going to be subjective, just like the movie ratings. There are people who disagree that Sports Illustrated swimsuits should be rated “Mature”—but we have found that the vast majority of our members agree with our assessments. The ratings are done through a complex context-based algorithm. It is all automated; we don’t have staff who actually views the sites, except in research or in response to rating change requests from our members. One thing that sets Covenant Eyes apart is that every individual page on a website is rated, so the good areas of craigslist rate low, while the sexualized content of craigslist rates high. As soon as your computer accesses a website, our servers analyze all the information on that site to give it a proper rating. For instance, we look at the web address, the words used on the page itself, and also the “source code” for the page (all the coding that’s running in the background). Our system also looks at everything in context. For example, a site about breast cancer may not be rated very high, but a google search on breasts is another matter altogether. The ratings are displayed in the reports we send via e-mail to accountability partners. Partners get an at-a-glance list of highly rated web addresses, as well as highly rated Internet searches that were done. If partners want to understand the report more fully, each domain or address listed can be clicked on, and another more detailed report (called a “Detailed Browsing Log”) comes up. This helps parents and partners to see things in context. 4. How do you rate social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter? Great question, Todd. Because Facebook and Myspace themselves require users to be teens and older, each web address from Facebook.com, Myspace.com, and similar sites is always rated at least T for Teen. An individual page might rate higher because of the content on that page, but it is always at least rated T. 5. How much responsibility should parents take for their kids’ web surfing habits? What recommendations do you give to parents that have multiple kids with multiple computers/ cell phones/internet devices? Parents shape the habits and beliefs of their kids more than we often realize. Parents have a responsibility to God and their kids to be the shepherd of their family’s habits—that includes the Internet. Of course, all kids are different, and you can’t use a one-size-fits-all approach for every child. What you let your 15-year-old do online will be different from what you let your 5-year old do. This is why every parent needs to make use of software they can customize for each member of their family. Both our accountability and filtering services give parents this kind of control. When it comes to different devices, there’s no doubt parents need to be careful. Even things like your Nintendo Wii can access the Internet. Parents need to know about parental controls for every device they own. This may sound like a no-brainer, but I highly recommend not giving your 10-year-old an iPhone for their birthday and doing nothing to limit how they use it. We have accountability services for Windows computers, Macs, iPhones, iPod touches, iPads, and we are getting ready to release an “alpha” version of our Android app. All the latest Internet safety research comes to the same conclusion: The best way to guard the hearts and habits of your kids online is to set some basic rules and have ongoing dialogue with them about how they use the Internet. What parents need is a tool that not only constantly reminds them to do this, but is actually a springboard for healthy discussion. That’s exactly what Covenant Eyes aims to provide. I encourage your readers to pick up a free copy of our e-book, Parenting the Internet Generation. We have a lot of information in there I think parents will find useful. …. Ron DeHaas is the CEO of Covenant Eyes. Ron has a BS and an MS in Geology from The Ohio State University and attended the University of Michigan as a PhD candidate. Ron pioneered the concept of Accountability Software in the spring of 2000 when he founded Covenant Eyes. Ron is also the founder of Nehemiah Ministries, a 160-acre retreat and counseling center in south- central Michigan (a center for pastors, missionaries, and their families offered free-of-charge).
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