Screen Accountability for Your Teen: 5 Keys to Keep Them Safe
We talk to a lot of parents who want to protect their children from pornography. But what should you do when your teenagers push back when you suggest accountability software?
We received an email recently from a parent with two teenagers who object to putting Covenant Eyes Screen Accountability™ on their computers and iPhones. They claim they have nothing to hide about what they are doing online, and they think the whole thing is “weird, invasive, and implies we don’t trust them.” Should Mom and Dad just put their foot down and insist on it? More importantly, how should they teach their kids from the Bible about the value of accountability in the home?
After surveying a number of Christian counselors, pastors, parents, and teens, I compiled a number of wise principles and action steps for parents to take.
1. Lead by Example.
“Mom and Dad need to live this out before they can lead it,” says Chris Spradlin, founder of EpicParent.tv. “I would recommend that Mom and Dad first get Covenant Eyes installed on their phones and computer.”
When everyone in the home uses accountability software on their devices, teens are less likely to feel like they are being singled out. Lisa Cherry, author of Unmask the Predators, says parents should approach their children this way:
“The Lord has convicted me of the importance of safety and accountability in our family. Because of that, I voluntarily make all of our Internet activities accountable to our entire family system. I need accountability on my computers. In this age when so many adults, children, and teens are becoming lured online, it is simply prudent to make sure all of our activities are in the highest light.”
It is essential that a parent’s leadership in this is genuine: don’t use personal accountability merely as a pretense to spy on your kids. Teens are too smart to fall for that.
2. You’re Right, I Don’t Trust You.
Children’s pastor Dan Deyling offers some sobering advice to parents. “Their cries of ‘You don’t trust me!’ should be met with ‘You are right; and you should not trust yourself either.’” For kids in the church, this should be Christianity 101: human hearts are deceptively sinful. And for young men and women today, sexual temptation online is one of the most prevailing issues we face.
Jacqueline Anderson, now a college student at Heritage Bible College, grew up with Covenant Eyes in her home. When her dad first introduced his family to the software, she was taken aback by it. “I was a teen when my dad put the software on our computers and remember initially feeling like I was being accused of something I was not guilty of.” But her dad explained that this was a change the whole family was making to keep each other accountable as responsible adults and young adults. “None of us should think ourselves above temptation,” Jacqueline says. “I should not think myself above the temptation of porn and should be thankful for a godly person in my life willing to keep me accountable for what my eyes see online.”
Sherry Allchin, a Biblical counselor in Arlington Heights, Illinois, agrees. “I’d reverse the question to the boys this way: ‘Why would you trust yourselves in this arena, considering how many men fall to pornography—men who are not bad men, per se, but men who accidentally or otherwise got into bad stuff through the Internet and now are hooked?’”
As for feeling distrusted, teens must learn that trust is something earned. “I understand the issue because our girls have gone through that, too,” says Jennie Bishop, author of Planned Purity. “But they’ve earned our trust through keeping things open to us and through us having their passwords.”
Using accountability on our devices reminds of our humanness and weakness. When we begin thinking we are the exception, we are stepping on thin ice. Pride comes before a fall. “Porn is pervasive and extremely addicting, and no one is immune, no matter how good or self-controlled they think they are,” reminds Bishop. “Covenant Eyes is about knowing ourselves, and being prepared,” says Allchin. “What an amazing reminder on a computer or cell phone for any young man!”
3. Frame Accountability in the Right Light.
Sometimes the very word “accountability” can have a negative or even accusatory tone to it. Rick Thomas of Counseling Solutionssays, “Rather than use the word ‘accountability,’ which doesn’t fully connote what Mom wants to communicate, a better way to frame the situation is ‘biblical care’ or ‘serving one another.’ She wants to care for her sons.”
The New Testament is full of “one another” passages, providing parents with rich discussion material for how we are meant to care for each other. Honor one another. Edify one another. Admonish one another. Serve one another. Bear each other’s burdens. Confess your sins to one another.
Screen Accountability should be seen in this light. A parent is saying, in essence, “Sex is a real temptation, and I want to serve you by putting Covenant Eyes on the computers. This will help to guard your hearts,” says Thomas.
Joe Bilotti, a student at Carson Newman College, knows this might be a hard lesson for a teen to swallow. Bilotti knows from his own experience, when he was a teenager he put up some resistance to his mom wanting to “protect” him online. But now he understands things differently. “Setting up guardrails is not a way to be ‘mean’ or ‘blindly authoritative,’” he says. Bilotti and his father are accountability partners through Covenant Eyes, and he knows the personal benefit this brings. “My Dad and I know that our battle for purity is not being fought alone, but that he and I can each help ‘consider how to stir up one another to love and good works’” (Hebrews 10:24).
4. Be the Parent.
“Relationship and engagement with our kids is vital, but that relationship has to be parent/child, not just a friendship,” Jennie Bishop informs parents. “Sometimes making our kids holy has to supersede making them happy.”
The pages of Scripture are filled with this message. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 gives a challenging picture of just how comprehensive parenting needs to be: teach diligently, talk constantly, and always point them to the wide-ranging implications and applications of the greatest commandment. Today, this must include training about how we use the Internet.
Internet accountability can seem out of place if parents are permissive in others areas. “When children are encouraged to ‘live their own lives’ when it comes to their social life, driving activities, and daily schedules, entering into supervisory control in the world of electronics seems strange,” says Lisa Cherry.
“I am teaching parents to be very cautious about giving any electronic devices to a child with the assumption of complete privacy,” Cherry warns. “We are raising a generation that believes that they have a right to complete privacy online.”
Parents must straddle the tension of being too permissive or too authoritarian: they must make it clear they will monitor where their kids go and impart clear rules, while at the same time being warm and giving increased levels of autonomy as their teens get older.
Dan Deyling reminds parents of the story of Eli in 1 Samuel 2-4. He was judged primarily because he would not hold his sons accountable to their actions. “To allow unfettered internet access to her sons is to put a temptation and stumbling block in front of her sons. Jesus says, ‘Woe to the one through the temptation comes’ (Luke 17:1).”
Parents must not let a spirit of rebellion to go unchecked. “If these boys have a relationship with God,” asks Deyling, “why are they pushing back when someone—especially their mom!—suggests a plan to help them come against one of the prevailing sins of our culture? Mom should ask them that.”
(Deyling also believes dads should be taking the lead in this area. “If dad is in the picture, he should be doing this. This is a hard burden for a mom.”)
5. Apologize for Playing Catch-Up.
If parents are just now trying to implement changes in the home when their teens are older, this will be a difficult transition. Lisa Cherry offers some words parents can say:
“I believe I have made a mistake and given us all the impression that we are somehow not accountable for our behavior online. As you become older and get married, accountability in your family will be very important. Husbands and wives need to believe they can always pick up each other’s cell phone or check each other’s e-mail and never be surprised. Therefore, it is my job to help you develop that level of maturity at a young age. I believe I’ve made a mistake in allowing you to grow an independent spirit that will make it harder on you when you’re older.”
Jennie Bishop adds more words of wisdom to start this awkward conversation:
“I wish we had done this a long time ago, but we need to start now. I know it may seem like an invasion of your privacy now, but I need you to understand how this works so you can do the same for your kids one day. And you may learn some things about yourself through the experience that really helps you, too. I’m open to your thoughts as we figure out how this works together, and I have no intention of ‘spying’ on everything you do. But as the parents in the household, we’re responsible for what is viewed and communicated here via our technology. Everything we do online is part of who we are as Christians. I would be ignoring what God wants from me, if I didn’t set up boundaries and standards online just like I do in real life.”
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