Is the Internet a Danger
Aguide for concerned Christadelphians
The Internet has been growing explosively over the past few years. Five years ago it was used only by government, academia and a few large businesses. Today it has become commonplace to have Internet access from the home. This fantastic rate of growth has made many Christadelphians very wary of it. Here I address the commonest concerns that are expressed to me.
- Isn't the Internet full of obscene material?
- Isn't the Internet Full of Misleading Information?
- Isn't the Internet Unregulated?
- The Internet brings the world into your living room. That must surely be dangerous.
- Isn't e-mail less personal than a letter or a phone call?
- What about my Children and the Internet?
- Wouldn't it be better to spend money on other things, like books?
- Wouldn't it be better to spend time on other activities?
- What is there in the Internet's Favour?
- So, is the Internet a danger?
There are a great many sites on the Internet that contain obscene, offensive or generally undesirable material that might not be readily available elsewhere. To understand the nature of this potential threat you must first understand a little about how the Internet, and particularly World Wide Web - the easy to use friendly face of much of the Internet - works.
'Pages' on the World Wide Web look like magazine pages displayed on the computer screen. There is a subtle difference, however. Some words will be highlighted by being underlined. By moving the mouse pointer over one of these words it is possible to call another page to the screen. Typically the highlighted word will give some clear indication of the contents of the page it will call. For example, on my home page I mention that I am a member of Churchill College and that I am Christadelphian. Clicking on 'Churchill College' calls the Churchill College home page, clicking on the word 'Christadelphian' brings up a page about Christadelphian beliefs. It would be pointless to link the word 'violin' to a page promoting the beliefs of the Neo-Nazis. If you pick up a book that claims to be about cookery but upon opening it you find it is really about quantum chromodynamics you are going to put the book back on the shelf. In the same way, someone following a link from the word 'violin' to the Neo-Nazi site will turn back. People are generally not mislead in this way.
Anybody who has even a small amount of experience of the Internet will find it quite easy to find information, and there will be people who deliberately go in search of obscene or offensive material. Although this represents a problem it is not as serious as it seems. The Internet does not create a demand for pornographic material, it simply meets that demand. With the advent of easy Internet access the sale of pornographic magazines has declined markedly.
In principle, anybody can set up a web site and there is no way of knowing how accurate any given site is. Some are obviously very high quality, being associated with reputable organisations, such as the New Scientist web site. Others are very obviously misleading and wrong. The sites that cause potential problems are those that are biased or inaccurate but appear to be rational. The most bizarre arguments can be made to seem so much more powerful and logical when presented on a well designed web site. Sadly, there are at least three anti-Christadelphian websites on the Internet, one of which contains a large number of fundamental errors. Of course this should be contrasted with the fact that there are in excess of a hundred sites set up by Christadelphians, all of which give the same positive picture of our body.
Because of this it is important to treat every piece of information you find on the Internet with a healthy degree of scepticism. Just as we are used to evaluating the reliability of particular newspapers we need to examine information on the Internet critically and be prepared to disbelieve what we are told.
Combating misinformation about the Christadelphians is something that we can take more active steps to do. It would be easy to bury our heads in the sand and have nothing to do with the Internet, but that would simply leave the Internet open to inaccurate descriptions of our beliefs. It is much better to use the Internet to promote what we believe. At present there are so many pro-Christadelphian Websites that they completely swamp the anti-Christadelphian sites.
There is no body that regulates the Internet. Nobody can appeal to a higher authority to have a particular site removed or corrected. However, ultimately, nobody controls all the world's printing presses, or telephones, or television channels. Individual countries may try to impose restrictions upon what can be printed or broadcast but these regulations are frequently ignored. The fact that the Internet is unregulated is a very great strength. Anybody can put information onto the Internet for a relatively small sum of money so it is virtually impossible to silence any group. Even if preaching is outlawed in Israel we will still be able to use the Internet to preach to Israel. The Christadelphians are able to reach any area of the western world, and should Christ remain away, the Internet will one day be available to the whole world.
A.J. Liebling wrote that "Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one." The Internet is bringing us close to the day when everyone will own a press. That can only be a good thing for the Christadelphian body.
Yes and no. The Internet gives you the potential to access huge amounts of information from your living room. If abused, then it is dangerous. However unsavoury information is never forced upon you.
E-mail can sometimes be more personal than a phone call or a letter. Because e-mail is usually delivered soon after being sent it is possible to send an e-mail and receive a reply within a matter of hours, or even minutes. Under the right circumstances this can provide a degree of emotional support that even a phone call, or personal contact, cannot. On the other hand e-mail tends to be more terse than most letters, so it can sometimes be cold and seemingly impersonal. It depends on how it is used.
As a parent it is difficult knowing how to balance your child's safety with your child's need to explore the world. The Internet is no different than 'real life' in this respect. Children should not be allowed unlimited and unsupervised access to the Internet, just as they should not be allowed unlimited access to every book that has ever been published, or watch any television programme.
It is important to get the issues surrounding children and the Internet into perspective. Children have been killed in car accidents; this is not a valid reason for not letting your children travel by car. There have been some highly publicised incidents where the Internet has been involved with abuse of children. These are actually very infrequent and it is certainly considerably easier to protect children on the Internet than it is to prevent them from being killed in a road accident. If you chose to let your child have access to the Internet you should establish some basic rules, such as
- Do not give out personal information (name, address, telephone number) without parental permission
- Do not answer any questions that make you feel uncomfortable
- Do not arrange to meet with anyone you contact on-line without parental permission
Obviously, these rules also form the basis of adult safety on the Internet.
The complex issues surrounding the Internet and Children are discussed on Yahooligans! , the Internet guide for Children. Street Smart on the Web has a set of rules for Children's on-line safety, with more information for parents.
Computers are not cheap. The Encyclopedia Britannica on CD-ROM is about £125. To buy the printed version of the Encyclopedia Britannica costs more than the computer and the CD-ROM version together. Is it better to have Encyclopedia Britannica on CD-ROM or in print? That depends on the individuals who use it. Certainly an individual book, such as a novel or a text book, is considerably cheaper than a computer but it is wrong to say that it is better to spend money on one than the other.
That depends on what the other activities are, and what you do on the Internet. Contrary to the stereotype, using the Internet can be productive and spiritually fulfilling. I have enjoyed communicating with other Christadelphians on the "Ecclesia Discuss" mailing list (see Welcome to the Internet) and have had fruitful discussions on the newsgroup uk.religion.christian (see Preaching on the Internet).
Alternatively, it would not be the best use of your time to read the Star Wars newsgroups at the expense of Bible study. There is nothing wrong with non-serious use of the Internet, but it is important to keep it in moderation.
The Internet provides a very valuable preaching forum. My website gets accessed around 120 times every day and I have had a number of people who have asked to be put into contact with an ecclesia near where they live. At a time when attendances at our Sunday evening lectures are falling any new preaching forum is to be welcomed. Some people may be interested in what the Christadelphians believe, but be reluctant or unable to attend lectures. The Internet gives them an easier method to find out about our beliefs.
The Internet makes it much easier for Christadelphians to communicate with each other. Christadelphians living in isolation are considerably less isolated when they can communicate with other Christadelphians quickly and easily every day. The Internet makes this possible.
All technology has the capacity for good, or for evil. Printing presses can be used to publish Bibles, or they can be used to blasphemy. The problem, generally speaking, lies with the people who use the technology not the technology itself. Of course some technology has greater capacity for evil than others - it is hard to see what good torture equipment can do. I believe that, like printing, the Internet is morally neutral. Like printing, the Internet is here to stay, and like printing Christadelphians can use the Internet in a very positive way. For users of the Internet, Paul's advice to the Philippians is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it:
"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." Philippians 4:8