Friday, July 30, 2004

How parents can protect kids - Rabbi Leib Keleman

By Rabbi Lawrence Keleman
Cleveland Jewish News - July 30, 2004

Rabbi Lawrence Keleman
Like any metropolis, the World Wide Web has neighborhoods, some safe and some horrific. Unlike any other metropolis, the Web lacks a government, laws, or a police force. There are no moral guidelines.

A turn down the wrong cyberstreet guarantees exposure to information or images at least as corrosive as anything available in the streets of New York, Paris, or Tokyo - and often even worse. This is why parents need to be especially vigilant when teens go online.

Ample evidence describes the damage Internet involvement can wreak on academic performance. Although many parents help their children get online in order to bolster grades, research reveals that more time spent online translates into less time spent reading books and declining study skills.

The Internet cultivates impulsive jumping from Web page to Web page, but real learning requires concentration.

Restricting Internet access is a necessary but insufficient solution. What is needed is healing the personality weaknesses that virtually guarantee some individuals will fall victim to Internet temptations. A key challenge to parents and educators is identifying the risk factors and the individuals most at risk.

Four preexisting conditions put an individual at high risk for getting into trouble on the Internet. They are: lack of family bonds; low self-esteem; inability to express opinions and questions; and poor social skills.

Lack of family bonds
Both for adults and children, the most statistically significant risk factor for Internet use is weak familial connections. For centuries, rabbis have been teaching that children need parental love, and that when parents are not present to provide it, children will find dangerous replacements elsewhere.

Anything we do to strengthen our relationships with our children - especially spending more one-on-one time with them - makes them less vulnerable to Internet predators.

Low self-esteem
Study after study reveals that those who are most attracted to the most degraded
Internet sites also have the lowest self-esteem.

Inability to express opinions and questions
Because of its perceived anonymity, the Web offers adults and children alike a place to say and ask what they feel they cannot say and ask in the real world. The less children feel they can discuss with their teachers and parents, the more likely they are to turn to the Internet for discussion and information.

We especially want our children to ask us their questions regarding sexual matters and theological issues and to hear about these matters directly and exclusively from us.

If a child doesn't ask, we read in the Passover haggada, "You must stimulate his question." We must encourage our children and our adult students to inquire, and then we must give them suitable answers.

Poor social skills
Many who turn to the Internet for pornography or social contact do so because they consistently fail to succeed socially in their own world.

Parents should and must teach children about the cyberstreet and about the hucksters and criminals who live there. An even more significant step in reducing our children's vulnerability would be to teach them to value personal refinement and integrity at least as much as they value physical appearance or money.

Lawrence Kelemen is professor of education at Neve Yerushalayim College of Jewish Studies for Women.

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