NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Jeremy, an eighth-grader, just likes to play video games. He found a really neat one recently when a friend told him to visit a new Internet site. Even though it seemed to have a historical context — World War II — the action and computer graphics were more than state of the art; they were the best Jeremy had ever seen.
Weeks later Jeremy made an offensive racial remark at the dinner table. His parents — who had never thought, much less voiced, such an epithet — were shocked. They had never heard any of Jeremy’s friends use such bigoted slurs.
His parents’ reaction frightened Jeremy a little. He was unaccustomed to shocking his parents, but from their reaction he knew he’d done something wrong. So when they asked him where he’d learned such attitudes, he quickly showed them the website. He had somewhat innocently picked up the language from playing the video games.
The web site, it turns out, is not an innocent game location but a site established to propagate white supremacy. The web designer freely admits to targeting kids. While accusers say this and other websites propagate hate, the designer’s defense is that it teaches love — love for other white people. Both hatred and violence easily could be learned from the website.
Jeremy began to visit the white supremacist website because the game was fun. But the message that went along with the game seeped into his thinking unfiltered. Jeremy had little background to suspect or reject the ideas propagated along with the game.
The World Wide Web has radically expanded the audience for radical hate groups — and all under the auspices of free speech. The medium is inexpensive, anonymous, growing exponentially and entering your home uninvited. Note these facts gleaned from various reports:
— In four years the number of such sites has grown from 4 to 250.
— Well-established white supremacist groups admit that the Web has radically expanded their audience. One leader says that when he had to depend on the printed page he might reach 14,000 in a really good year. Now, in less than five years, his website has received more than a million hits. He’s thinking of beginning his own television network.
— The Web gives white supremacist groups a more sophisticated audience. Computer users begin with a certain level of prosperity, education and sophistication. While these people, whatever their ages, likely would not respond to a flyer or direct mail about a hate group meeting, they are subtly intrigued with information that moves from interest in current events to blame and hatred of other groups. As a result of these sophisticated methods, the message of hate has a loyal audience that now includes many college-educated adults.
— Lawsuits are working their way through the court system now. While the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution upholds free speech, it does not protect speech that “threatens to cause ‘imminent lawlessness’ or endanger national security.”
— Children and youth are targeted by hate groups. One web designer said: “Why should we not? Sesame Street goes after young kids with their agenda about race and tolerance. I see no reason why we shouldn’t bring a message like this.”
— Youth are often first attracted to such websites because of the music. If the site is designed to attract youth, it often includes contemporary rock music. The words then deliver the message.
— In 1996, 8,759 bias-motivated crimes were reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation by state and local law-enforcement agencies, compared with 7,947 in 1995.
— The growth of hate groups defies explanation, other than the sophistication of the medium. In the past, hate groups have grown and flourished most in times of economic stress. Now, in the midst of a robust economy, these groups are flourishing. Racist behavior was related to 474 hate groups and chapters of those groups in 1997, an increase in one year of approximately 20 percent.
— Florida, in early 1998, had the largest number of hate groups with about 50.
— While 250 “hate” sites are confirmed, some estimates are as high as 800 “hate speech” sites. They include everything from Neo-Nazis to militia movements, from Holocaust denial advocates to bomb-making recipes.
— Discovering who is behind a given website or other information posted on the Internet can be difficult, however. Sometimes lawsuits have been filed that will become active when those responsible for the hate information can be named.
Before you begin throwing all your computers out the window (or at least unplugging them), wait a minute. The computer or the Internet or the World Wide Web is no more evil than the newspaper, the television, movies, books or magazines. All such tools can be used for good or bad.
One of the difficulties in combating the evils that can enter a teenager’s consciousness through a modem is the ignorance of many adults about using computers — especially entering the World Wide Web. Technical knowledge of computers and how to use them may be the first body of knowledge adults have ever learned from their children. You can do something about this. Here are some ideas.
Begin in the home — Parents have long known about the dangers of the availability of pornography through the Internet. Many may not know about other kinds of dangerous information.
A call to a friend found her very agitated. Reluctantly she said that she had recently discovered her straight-A, private-school, church-every-Sunday freshman son making a bomb at home. He had downloaded the instructions from the Web on the home computer.
For church staffers who work with parents, consider these suggestions:
1) Provide computer training for parents. Teach them about filters. Show them how to check the Web history on their home computer to see which sites have been visited and how to go there themselves. (Make sure they understand that histories can be erased and there are ways of getting to websites without the information being noted on the history log.)
2) Plan dialog times for parents and students to discuss and learn about computers together. Include “parent listening” times when teenagers tell their parents what they have learned on the Internet and how it enhances their research and education.
3) Distribute guidelines for parents to use in talking with their youth about Internet use. Give them the computer vocabulary they need to have a conversation with their computer-savvy students, so the conversation won’t end before it begins.
4) Plan parent-youth computer classes where kids teach the parents how to use the computers. Enlist some youth to lecture and others to work with parents one-on-one.
5) Provide monthly or quarterly computer news bulletins for parents to keep them informed about current dangers. Remind them that this information is freely accessible in their homes, just as all the beneficial information is available to their teenagers. Remind them also that you are partnering with them to meet the needs of their teenagers, but ultimately parents are responsible and have the greatest influence on their youth. Offer your assistance in helping them stay educated and informed.
Include computer use in your time with teenagers. Set up monthly meetings for computer-user discussion groups. Encourage teenagers to come prepared to review websites. Let them share lists of websites they have visited and want to share with others, along with information about why they like that particular website. Meet where you have computer availability. Visit some of the websites together. Let teenagers choose the “best site of the day.”
Teach youth to discriminate and to question what they see on the Internet. Some adults once believed that everything in print was true. Many learned that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and that “pictures don’t lie” until they discovered that with computer help pictures can be radically altered. People who’ve never visited France can have convincing photos of themselves in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Electronic communication belongs to the world of youth. They likely will find information on the computer more credible than anything in print, perhaps more compelling than what they see on TV. Give them guidelines for viewing, criteria for evaluating what they see. Invite them to ask you or other youth leaders about questionable content, which may shock or offend adults. To help them learn to be discriminating themselves, find ways to help them evaluate what they see without judging or condemning them for telling you what they’ve found on the Internet.
Monitor church computers closely. Computers are valuable tools for teaching youth at church. Whether the computers are in the media library, the Christian school, the office or the classrooms, make sure they are as user-safe as possible.
Learn all you can about filtering methods. This technology works by identifying common words and phrases — such as obscene or violent words. Filters can be placed on individual computers or on the Internet provider’s server. With the filter in place, when a user enters a Web address into a computer, the filter checks for objectionable elements related to that page. If those words are discovered, it blocks that page from being viewed on the computer screen.
Filters work on several different levels. A database filter is most common. This technology relies on a stored list of specific Web addresses that have been deemed objectionable. When a user enters a Web address, the database checks that address against its list of offensive sites and blocks accordingly. When considering a database filter, keep in mind that 200-1,000 sites that could be categorized as “objectionable” are created each day. The database must have a large number of addresses listed already and be easily updated on a regular basis. Before considering this type filter, find out what it considers “objectionable.”
The next level of filtering is a word scrubber. This filter also checks Web addresses, but it uses a list of key words for blocking. When a Web address is entered, the scrubber checks the address for offensive words. If it finds a match in the scrubber’s key words, it blocks that page.
Dynamic filters are the most sophisticated method of filtering at this time. A dynamic filter actually examines the content of a website for offensive words, phrases and combinations of words. If this material is found, then the dynamic filter blocks the page in question.
Of course, the more sophisticated the filter, the more expensive it is. Remember, and remind parents, that no filter is foolproof. Their own teenagers will be able to disarm or get around many filter systems.
Some people object to filters altogether because in eliminating objectionable websites they may also eliminate educational websites that happen to include some of the objectionable language. The benefits of filters on church-owned computers may outweigh the limitations.
Maintain your own ethics in your personal computer use. Some ministers, even while seeking to monitor and help teenagers use this tool responsibly, have themselves been caught up in obscene or violent websites. Like other media, computer websites can become addictive. Know your own limitations, and stay true to your values. Don’t let your own investigation lead to your downfall.
Through the Internet teenagers can learn to search for biblical passages, biblical answers to life’s questions. They can compare Bible translations, visit the Holy Land and learn about other religions.
Make the positives far outweigh the negatives in computer use. Help teenagers become so excited about the beneficial information on the Web that they have no time to visit dangerous websites.
Stay current. Your teenagers are on the Web. You should be, too. You may not be able to stay one step ahead of them in this area, but they will respect your involvement and concern as you include computer use as part of your ministry with youth.
Hayes is a freelance writer based in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. Reprinted by permission from the August 1999 edition of Youth Ministry Update, a resource for youth ministers published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Subscription inquiries may be phoned to 1-800-458-2772.