‘Good Samaritans’ in the Digital Age

My day job requires me to stay current with the latest tools and tricks relative to providing information via the Internet. As a full-time Web developer at Mizzou, I serve my employer best when I use the tools of the online age to connect relationally with MU faculty, staff, students and alumni in a manner that is winsome, pleasant, helpful and (above all) respectful.

Stated negatively, I would almost certainly lose my job within the space of a week were I to leverage the trust of my employer to begin broadcasting “whatever happened to come to mind.” I am paid to think a bit more carefully than that before I communicate.

However, in the 15-plus years that I have been working in online communications, I have certainly had my fair share of mess-ups. Resource accounts hacked. Web pages vandalized with profanity. Search engine “bots” unintentionally enabled to spew forth Viagra spam e-mails…and worse. Most of these mistakes were – thankfully – learning experiences that did not cost me my job, but rather taught me to process things a bit more deeply, to approach information from multiple points of view before I initiate or respond to anything.

In the course of my career, I have learned many negative lessons both by personal experience and by staying abreast of Internet-related crimes, tragedies and scams. Another less-flattering way to say this is that to do my job well I have had to learn to “think like a hacker” or any other person with less-than-honorable intentions.

Because of my profession, I know enough about illicit Internet activity to know that I don’t know nearly enough. It was in that spirit of wanting to learn more and get a more informed perspective that I drove out to the Boone County Sheriff’s Department to interview Andy Anderson. If you are a Crossing member or attendee, you may know Andy as the friendly guy who holds the front door open for you as you enter the church to attend first service. During the work week, however, Andy serves a seven-county area as a detective for the Cyber Crimes Task Force. To say that there is more than enough work for Andy and his co-workers to deal with would be a fairly huge understatement.

“How should Christians use the Internet in a redemptive fashion?”

That was the question that was foremost in my mind as I sat down to talk with Andy for about 40 minutes back in September. Even though I have worked in the field of online communications for several years now, I can only describe my time spent with Andy and one of his task force colleagues as “eye-opening.” If interested in learning more, you can read a condensed version of our conversation at the Columbia Faith and Values website, filed under the headline “Online Serpents and Virtual Doves.”

For the purpose of answering this question about a more-redemptive use of the Internet, I thought it might be helpful to intermingle both what I have learned over the years with the new information that Andy provided. These suggestions are offered not only from the perspective of common sense – what anyone using the Internet should know – but very specifically from the Christian perspective of “doing right by our neighbor” (Luke 10:29-37) and (at a minimum) at least not causing anyone any harm, intentional or otherwise.

With that, some thoughts to consider:

  • Think a bit longer before you text (or IM or e-mail or whatever). One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received was actually pretty simple: “If you are angry or emotionally upset, walk away from your keyboard; turn your cell phone off.” Arguments are not necessarily a bad thing, but the larger context and non-verbal cues that can often help people work things out face-to-face are completely absent when texting, e-mailing or posting something to a friend’s wall on Facebook. The exact same sentence, spoken in person, might calm things down whereas writing it out might only escalate the conflict. There comes a time when we are all better served by using our phone to actually talk to another human being as opposed to texting them. It also helps to make some attempt to think long-term, as in “What seemed so outrageously funny over Homecoming weekend didn’t play that way in my job interview.” Surely we all know by now that potential employers regularly screen Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets to get some sense of the character of the people they are interviewing before they make a decision to hire?
  • Get permission before you post photos of other people and be discerning about what you post of yourself. In the age of Facebook, this one seems to have completely eluded most of us. We would probably never consider printing up a four-color poster with a friend or loved one’s face on it and plastering it on every street corner without first asking permission, but most of us don’t think twice about posting photos of other people to Facebook or other social media, where the potential exposure is limitless. After all, we’re just sharing the pictures of an event we all experienced together, right? Facebook and other websites make it brain-dead easy to broadcast pictures of our child’s last birthday party for out-of-town relatives, for instance, but in broadcasting to family members, we have zero idea how many others may be watching. There are countless stories of people who have unwittingly enabled predators to target “cute kids.” One of the more disturbing remarks Andy made during our time together was to compare how “most normal people” would interpret a photo of a small child at a ballet recital to how someone with a sexual fetish might see the same picture. Something that most of us would view as “harmless” and “entirely innocent” takes on a life of its own in the mind of a predator. We see cute kids captured in a heartwarming moment; a predator sees something entirely different, something that fuels his or her unhealthy fantasy life. Andy’s point was simple: “You have no idea how your ‘innocent’ photos land in the mind of someone who is mentally unstable. They do not share your context.”
  • Your ability to “control” who sees your online activity is an illusion. Many social media sites provide “guards” so that we can limit access to the information we publicize only to those we give access to. These “guards,” however, can routinely be overridden by someone motivated enough to be searching online with evil intent. Even “limited access” sites should be used with great caution. I suspect that one of the underlying reasons that high school girls are posting images to Facebook that are better suited for Maxim magazine is that they are seeking to build up their self-esteem, or to be viewed as “desirable” by one person in particular. The problem is that the image that she was hoping to use to impress “Johnny” also ends up in the hands of seven billion other people.
  • Don’t cave to pressure. Set rules for Internet usage and abide by them. Make responsible phone use a prerequisite for maintaining a phone in the life of your teenager. Yes, there are a lot of children under 12 walking around with Internet-enabled cell phones, just don’t let your kid be one of them. Everything in our culture militates toward being overly-permissive with how and when our kids can use the Internet, but as a Christian father of seven kids ranging in age from Kindergarten to 22, I can attest to the damage done by allowing kids to sleep with their cell phones, just to use one example. Again, a telling remark from Andy: “We now have kids consistently showing up for school exhausted and unable to do their work because they were woken up at 3:00 a.m. by a friend texting them repeatedly.”
  • Keep the “loaded gun” word picture in mind. In the interview published at ColumbiaFAVS.com, Andy drew an analogy between Internet-enabled devices and loaded weapons. From his years of experience in law enforcement, Andy basically equated the two: “No self-respecting parent would ever hand their teenager a loaded handgun and expect them to figure it out as they go along, but that’s basically what they are doing when they hand them an Internet-enabled phone.” If you are tempted – as I was – to think that this might perhaps be an exaggeration, all you need to do is Google for recent incidents of cyber-bullying, teenage suicide, underage sex trafficking and so forth. Kids under the age of 22 simple do not have the developmental/cognitive capacity to think through all possible ramifications of their online activities, and the “baddies” are well-schooled in how to put one over on young people.
  • Glorify God with all of your online activity. This recommendation goes far beyond “Don’t cuss” or “Don’t sext.” Our time online should be viewed as a good gift that has been given to us by a loving God (1 Timothy 4:4-5). As such, perhaps we should consider that communication in any form – online or in person – is one more very real way in which we can honor God with the way we are treating other human beings. Are we approaching our time online as a means by which we better ourselves and others? Are we being both cautious (wise) and blameless (innocent) (Matthew 10:16) in the way we protect our family and communicate with friends and other relatives? What positive benefit has someone else received by the way I have conducted myself online?

In today’s culture, the quaint, post-Enlightenment notion that we’re all “basically good people” has begun to shift our thinking in ways that impact the decisions we make about all kinds of things, including our Internet use. For most of us, it’s difficult to “think like a criminal” when – consciously or unconsciously – you believe that everyone around you is a good person. This belief – demonstrably false to begin with – extends itself to those who are “around us” online, even though we have no idea how large this crowd of people “around us” actually is, and who is in that crowd. The vast majority of us conduct our online activity as if horrific Internet crimes never happen, or that for some reason they will never happen to us or someone we love. It’s almost as if we think we have been inoculated against random, anonymous evil coming to our neighborhood. And yet, most of us probably don’t leave our homes unlocked when we leave for the weekend, right?

I am well aware that my cautious/protective perspective on Internet and cell phone usage might possibly be considered “alarmist.” Far from believing everyone around me is basically a good person, though, I have instead accepted the thoroughly-biblical idea that we are all far more evil than we can even see or imagine (Jeremiah 17:9; Psalm 14:1-3; Romans 3:10-18). Even as our gracious God offers His common grace as protection from so much evil actually playing out in our lives, He also calls us to guard ourselves against the evil crouching at our doorstep. (Genesis 4:6-7; 1 Peter 5:8). Nowadays, however, airborne cellular service and wireless in-home Internet connectivity have effectively made the idea of defending loved ones from evil “at our doorsteps” a rather quaint notion as well. It’s far too late for that.

1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV, emphasis added.)
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

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