Parents: be safe, not fashionable

This week’s story of a Cape Town teen that was allegedly being recruited by terrorist group ISIS (Islamic State) has shocked her local community and made news headlines. The State Security Agency has launched an investigation and Minister Brian Dube has promised that details of what happened will be made public when the investigation is complete. There is, however, another much more important investigation that needs to be made: one by parents.

Do you know what your children are doing online? Although details are sketchy it has been alleged that the teen made contact with ISIS on social media and made payments to them online. It did not stop there. No doubt whoever was in contact with her also knew her precise location and so she, and those around her, could/can also be in physical danger. By trying to board a flight the girl had been lured, electronically, into actual contact – potentially deadly contact.

The world of electronic media has brought many benefits to us – the ability to keep in touch with family and friends, to shop, bank and source information. But there is a dark underbelly, which we all too often ignore. This incident should jolt parents into rethinking the online activities of their children. I wonder how many know what their children are really doing online? This is not a trust issue alone. The lure of social media and the tactics used by people with undesirable intentions manipulate young people and entice them unintentionally and, even, unbeknown to them.

I often hear people bemoan the availability of offensive material online. There are many anti-porn awareness campaigns, for example. There are electronic means of blocking access to potential dangers online, like NetNanny. These are all good in as far as they raise awareness and give us some insight into a world we may not necessarily be familiar with or assist in protecting children. There is, however, another elephant in the room that needs to be interrogated: should responsible parents allow their children to own smartphones and have unlimited online access?

I heard a story of a six-year-old child that was given a smartphone for her birthday. I wonder if the generous and well-meaning parent had carefully considered the dangerous gadget they had placed in their child’s hand? I suspect not. Sometimes parents themselves can be victims. They do not want their children to be the “odd one out” and so feel the lure to make sure their kids have what everyone else has and are, therefore, fashionable too. Sometimes parents think that by giving their children smartphones they protect them – it is for “security purposes.” Ironically, it can be the most unsafe gift a child is ever given. A call box card is more secure.

Please, parents, investigate what your children are doing online… over and over. Even better, don’t be fashionable, be safe.

The Jesuit Institute now offers a workshop on the legal, practical and spiritual aspects of social media entitled “Living with integrity in the Digital World”.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church. @rpollittsj
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