Child abuse and exploitation may be worse in the “Digital Age” than even the experts once feared. How can you protect your children from the dangers of the Internet and sexual predators on the web? God’s word holds answers.
How many reading this article have any idea how rampant sexual harassment is over the Internet, even amongst children? Consider the following: The BBC on June 10, 2021, highlighted a shocking fact from a government school inspection report saying that “some girls can be contacted by up to 10 or 11 different boys a night asking for nude or semi-nude images” (“Girls asked for nudes by up to 11 boys a night, Ofsted finds”). The inspectors concluded that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse have become “normalised” among school-age children.
Parents everywhere should be alarmed that this kind of behaviour is being reported in our schools, acknowledging that they have primary responsibility to teach their children how to behave appropriately towards members of the opposite sex, not the school system. The issue begins in the home and is taken to school, and the solution must surely also begin in the home. God’s word speaks very strongly about the importance of safeguarding our children from all abuse, which today includes online abuse.
The World Wide Web Foundation published a report that supports the United Kingdom school inspection’s findings, demonstrating that this widespread abuse is an international issue by stating, “52% of young women and girls we surveyed said they’d experienced online abuse, including threatening messages, sexual harassment and the sharing of private images without consent” (“There’s a pandemic of online violence against women and girls,” WebFoundation.org, July 14, 2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic over the last 18 months has only served as a catalyst to the problem, with young people spending much more time on the Internet. Online, where most people feel detached from reality to some degree, is where much of this sexual harassment takes place. In 2017, a UK survey by charity Plan International found that 50 percent of girls under 18 and 40 percent of boys had experienced online bullying. In many cases, this was related to the images they had shared of themselves online, some of an explicit nature. Once shared, all control of these images is lost, and they can be used for blackmail.
Social media apps like Snapchat and Whisper, increasingly used to share images amongst school-age children, provide a false hope of controlling wider exposure by limiting the time images are posted. CommonSenseMedia.org states, “The seemingly risk-free messaging might encourage users to share pictures containing sexy images” (“18 Social Media Apps and Sites Kids Are Using Right Now,” June 6, 2019).
Fundamentally, the deeper question should be, Why are these children willing to share inappropriate pictures of themselves? If children do not post this material online, part of this pervasive problem goes away. Images can easily be copied and posted elsewhere—or, worse still, edited into pornographic material—and suicide has tragically proved to be an increasing consequence of the resulting life-shattering embarrassment.
The challenge for today’s parents is that so much of their children’s communication with friends and strangers alike takes place online rather than in person. Strangers may appear friendly or masquerade as other children while seeking to establish a manipulative relationship, a process called grooming. Sadly, many parents have no idea what is going on online and how insidious it can be. The Internet has become a tool for rapid communication and freely sharing images and videos. Clear evidence shows that these avenues are being exploited by despicable individuals—and parents need to become aware of what is happening.
When it comes to the behaviour of our children, we must pose the inevitable question, Who is ultimately responsible for teaching them how to behave towards others? Surely, it is the role of their parents and family members who love them to instill godly values and teach them the need to show kindness and respect—to prioritise the biblical focus on treating others as we would like to be treated and not reducing anyone to a mere focus of lust.
Our children need to be taught from an early age that the Internet, just like the “real world,” is a potentially harmful environment. If our children experience inappropriate, suggestive messages or see unsuitable images, they need to tell their parents or guardians. Talking with trusted loved ones about these things takes courage. It requires open lines of communication and time with parents and grandparents to discuss what they are experiencing at school or online. When responding to accounts of sexual harassment or online abuse, parents and guardians should be very careful not to blame their child, who is the victim; the responsibility lies fairly and squarely with the perpetrators, whether they are other students at school or online “friends” and contacts.
Practical steps can be taken. Parents may want to allow Internet access only on family computers in communal spaces at home, and to limit smartphone use with suitable software tools. “Private” rather than “Public” settings may limit those who can follow you or directly message you on social media, but will not necessarily prevent your profile from appearing in search results. Limiting contacts to friends and family—those you really trust—is the best advice, but may not always be possible depending upon the social media platform. Certainly, sharing public images of minors—even our small and adorable children or grandchildren—in various states of undress is highly dubious online conduct.
Jesus Christ values children greatly and warns in no uncertain terms about how we must care for them. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
Proverbs 31 records the words of King Lemuel (Solomon) taught to him by his mother. He captures a key aspect of how someone with godly authority—such as a parent—should administer justice on behalf of children under their care: “But you must defend those who are helpless and have no hope” (Proverbs 31:8, Contemporary English Version). In God’s sight, we have a collective responsibility to safeguard all children from harm. This is achieved first and foremost at home with parents being diligent to “train up a child in the way they should go” (Proverbs 22:6).
We should teach our sons and daughters an appropriate, respectful, and self-controlled approach towards others, as well as the appropriate responses to others in various situations. Almighty God establishes what is right and wrong in the use of our bodies and minds, even when driven in youth by the hormones He created. We must learn to honour Him by fleeing from sexual immorality and all that entails (1 Corinthians 6:18–20).
Sadly, what we see happening in the UK and in so many other nations is a direct consequence of what biblical prophecy has long warned will happen as Israelite nations turn from God; “because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hosea 4:6). Thankfully, Jesus Christ will soon return to establish the government of God upon this earth (Revelation 11:15). The knowledge of God and His way of life will spread to every corner of society—throughout nations, families, and our educational systems (Isaiah 11:9). The misguided instigators of harm towards other children within schools and online will not be allowed to continue their revolting behaviour. May God hasten that day!