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My space, My kids

Does God Want to Be in MySpace?

By Jason Illian
Guest Writer -- My Space, My Kids excerpt

“I WANNA BE THE GIRL WHO STEALS YOUR BREATH AWAY” is a 15-year-old from Temple, Texas. When you first log onto her site, you hear the song “Vulnerable” by Secondhand Serenade. Quite appropriate, I think, because most teenagers feel just that—vulnerable.

As you surf her site, you see that she is a cheerleader and a Capricorn, and her income is over $250,000 (not sure about that last one). She also states that she is a Christian. A few sentences later, however, she begins cursing like a drunken sailor. Apparently, she is also confused. She has hundreds of friends, plenty of pictures, and personal information about her high school, the boy she likes, her brother Nick, and her eclectic musical interests.

From her site, you can link to a number of different friends, strangers, posers, dreamers, and geeks. One profile linked to her site features an 18-year-old guy playing a guitar in the buff. Another profile is of a teenage girl whose tagline is, “Even Cinderella has nightmares.” A fellow classmate’s profile has a survey about her different sexual experiences, which includes questions and answers like these: “Have you ever kissed someone of the same sex? Yes. Have you ever done something you regretted? Yes. Are you a virgin? No comment.” And she’s only 16.

And everything is in plain view for the whole world to see.

Welcome to the new virtual world called MySpace. Much like Ralph’s Diner on Happy Days, MySpace is the new hangout for characters like Potsie, Richie, Fonzi, and their closest 100 million friends. It’s an online community that is part chat room, part movie theater, part shopping mall, part bar, part concert, and part slumber party. But unlike the neighborhood skating rink or bowling alley, it is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Because each profile is a blank canvas for its owner, it is a place for everyone to express his or her individuality. It is called MySpace because it is literally “your space”—you can do with it whatever you please.

Even though MySpace is hesitant to release the exact age breakdown of its users, probably about 80 percent of the profiles are of adults 18 and older. The remaining 20 percent are teenagers between the age of 14 and 17. While that doesn’t sound like a very big following, you have to remember that MySpace has more than 100 million users—more than the combined population of California, Texas, and New York—and is growing at about three million new profiles a month. That means that approximately 20 million teenagers are going through this social network to talk about their breakups, to blog about schoolwork and music, and to find the address of the closest party.

The amazing thing about the MySpace social phenomenon is the speed at which it has gathered such a loyal following. In less than three years, MySpace has become the second-most visited site on the Internet (behind Yahoo), has been sold for more than $580 million to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and has become the new place for meeting people and exchanging information. What’s even more amazing is that most parents are ignorant, skeptical, or oblivious that MySpace even exists.

Family Values

Our culture doesn’t often recognize the family as the fundamental building block of society. But without it, our basic values and faith break down. God designed the family unit to help nurture and cultivate the next generation of leaders, to provide guidance and discernment, and to instill love and spiritual truths in our children. It wasn’t by accident that God used the imagery of family to explain our relationship to Him. He is our Father, and we are His sons and daughters.

Proverbs 22:6 (NASB) eloquently notes, “Train up a child way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” As you probably already know, this wise advice is much easier to discuss than to implement. Today’s kids face challenges that were nonexistent when we were youngsters. The Internet, cable television, and lifelike video games make parenting more difficult than ever before. Relating to teenagers today is like climbing a greased pole—slippery, challenging, and often discouraging. But it is absolutely necessary if you are going to influence their lives. Josh Billings once said, “To bring up a child in the way he should go, travel that way yourself once in a while.” In this spirit we are going to immerse ourselves in the MySpace community so that we can better understand our kids and our responsibilities.

Although I don’t have kids of my own yet (yet being the key word), I feel like a parent because I’ve been speaking all over the country for the last decade on issues that affect kids. I’m like a surrogate parent or an older brother to many of them. Whether I’m talking about sex, peer pressure, or MySpace, I’ve learned that many teenagers don’t connect with their parents or don’t believe their parents even care. I was recently approached by a frustrated middle- school girl who said she was struggling with depression and suicide. When I asked if she had discussed these issues with her parents, she said her mom told her to “stop whining and suck it up.” In another situation, I received an e-mail through my MySpace account from a 14-year-old girl who was asking questions about premarital sex. She stated in her e-mail that “I would love to talk to my mom about this, but she just seems so perfect. She doesn’t get me.”

Please understand that I’m not going to tell you how to raise your children. I’m simply here to share my experiences with the MySpace community, answer questions that I’ve received from parents and teens alike, and help you protect and connect with your kids. My number one priority is the safety of your family. Think of me as a translator and a guide. You are about to dive into unchartered virtual waters—I’m here to help you freshen up on your strokes.

People naturally fear what they do not understand. Because of the negative press this online community has received recently, parents assume that MySpace is inherently bad. Not the case. Like any other piece of technology—the Internet, e-mail, cell phones— MySpace is simply a tool for leveraging communication and sharing information. But unfortunately, the better the tool is at effective communication, the worse it is when used improperly. This is certainly the case with MySpace. Used correctly, it can be a wonderful resource to talk to teenagers, share in their struggles, encourage their dreams, and nurture their growth. But used poorly, it can be equally destructive to teenagers’ overall development. We’re here to make sure the latter doesn’t happen.

After speaking to thousands of people about MySpace, I’ve learned that most parents fall into one of three categories. They are (1) ignorant that MySpace even exists, thus having little or no influence in their teenager’s virtual life; (2) angry that it is a teen hangout, often verbally sparring with their kids to stop them from using it; or (3) cautious of the new technology but trying to understand and willing to participate in the new world. The majority of parents fall into the first two categories, but the successful ones fall into the third. Regardless of how you feel about the Internet and online communities, they are here to stay. Even if MySpace was shut down tomorrow, more than a dozen other ones, including Facebook, Xanga, Friendster, and MyYearbook, are waiting to take its place. You don’t have to blindly accept everything that transpires online, but you’ll be a better parent if you understand it.

We don’t stop our children from driving even though automobile accidents account for more teenage deaths than any other cause, with 3657 American teens between the ages of 15 and 20 dying in 2003. Likewise, we’re not going to stop our teenagers from chatting online and meeting new people. We just need to teach them how to do it properly so that they don’t get hurt.

Perspective, Priorities, and the Plan

John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, once joked, “Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children, and no theories.” Whether you have teenagers, are about to have teenagers, or just yell at the neighborhood teens from your front porch, you probably realize you are dealing with a rowdy bunch. You may feel as if you’re herding cats, and most teens I deal with have the attention span of a sea monkey. So if you are truly interested in influencing them, you’ll need a detailed plan of action.

I know no better place to search for this plan than the Bible. Even though it doesn’t speak specifically about online issues—where was Moses on that one!—it speaks at great lengths about raising children and loving relationships. Most parents are struggling to grasp MySpace, but a handful of parents are doing it well already. By leveraging their expertise and using the Word as a blueprint, I have been able to construct a solid outline that will help you on your journey. If you study it closely, you will see that this outline will not only help you navigate the good, bad, and ugly of MySpace, but it will also help you confront many other issues that may arise with your teenager.

The plan of action has three parts:

Perspective. As we mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, children are a gift from the Lord. They are on loan from God, meaning that they are really His children that we have the opportunity to raise and nurture. This is important to address from the outset so we remember that our responsibility is limited. We are called to follow Scripture, listen to God’s leading in our lives, and do everything in our power to protect, comfort, and lead our kids, but ultimately, only God can make them grow. I often speak to parents who are heartbroken that their kids have made mistakes, but they fail to realize they are not called to control their children’s lives. They are called to guide them.

The second part of gaining perspective deals with walking in their shoes. You will relate more effectively to your children if you are actively involved in all aspects of their lives. Parents can’t expect their teenagers to heed their advice if the parents are not willing to try to understand their kids’ situation. If you want to offer powerful guidance about MySpace and online communications, try to understand as much of it as possible. You cannot impart wisdom you do not possess. Your teen will respect your insight much more if you know how to navigate the site, appreciate its benefits, and understand its problems. As leadership guru Stephen Covey noted in his bestselling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand…then to be understood.” In the first few chapters of this book, we are going examine the dynamic landscape around MySpace so that we can have a clear perspective before learning the basics.

Priorities. The fundamental, biblical principles for raising a child aren’t circumstantial. They are eternal. They don’t change with new technologies, new theories, or new families. Scripture clearly calls us to love, discipline, teach, guide, protect, nurture, and develop our children. Providing for their physical needs can be a real challenge, but we all know that providing for their spiritual and moral development is even more difficult.

Every teenager is unique, and their needs and desires change often and drastically. As a parent, you are responsible to make sure your child’s continued development aligns with the growth of your whole family. Because situations are different, you will have to decide what you will allow your children to do online and how they will do it. Most parents wisely restrict their teenagers from roaming freely on the Internet. But the nature and extent of those controls will differ from family to family.
In the second section of the book, we are going to take a guided tour through MySpace so you can make an informed decision. I’ll teach you how to log onto different accounts, how to follow your child’s electronic footprints, and even how to set up your own account. By the end of the section, you should be comfortable reading blogs, surfing chat rooms, posting comments, and listening to music.

Plan. All of our education and discussion would be worthless if we didn’t formulate a plan for implementing our newfound knowledge. Privacy and protection are most parents’ key concerns. But if we just stop there, we may be neglecting the greatest power of MySpace. Believe it or not, MySpace can be a great tool for parents. It can be a second pair of eyes and ears for those who want to better understand their children and the challenges they face. Parents can use this virtual community to monitor, interact with, and encourage their kids like never before.

In many instances, MySpace doesn’t create problems, it simply reveals them. Teenagers face difficult decisions and peer pressure nearly every day. Some parents don’t want to admit that their children struggle with sexual temptations, drinking opportunities, drug-related issues, depression, or loneliness. But most teenagers do face most of these pressures. In the past, parents were able to turn a blind eye to these issues and act as if they didn’t exist. But in the virtual world, teens are writing down their problems and reaching out for help. Instead of guessing about or ignoring the issues that teenagers have, we have the unique opportunity through portals such as MySpace to understand their problems and provide help.

In the last part of the book, I hope to help you formulate a plan to work with your kids. I can’t possibly prepare you for all the struggles you may face, but by providing a map and showing you how to use it, I can point you in the right direction. Ironically, most teenagers don’t need you to do anything. They just need you to be there for them. We’ll discuss different online situations, relay a few success stories from other parents, suggest options regarding talking to your teen, and provide resources for your continual walk.

If I have learned anything in all my years dealing with teenagers, it is this: They are smart. Really smart. Smarter than they receive credit for. Because of the information age and access to different forms of media, they display a great capacity to learn, and they are not afraid to dig for the answers they seek. The struggles we faced when we were 18, they are facing when they are 12. Whether we like it or not, their intellectual maturation is light-years beyond where we were at that same age. The problem is that many teens do not have a firm spiritual and moral foundation to help them make wise decisions. They can tell you ten different positions in which to have sex, but they can’t tell you why God designed it for marriage. They can tell you that Jesus died on the cross, but they can’t tell you why He did so. They can tell you that talking on the cell phone, IMing their buddies, e-mailing their girlfriends, surfing on the Web, and hanging out on MySpace is cool, but they can’t tell you why they like it or explain the dangers behind it.

Our job is to determine the why. When we figure out why, we can formulate a plan to monitor how they participate in this whole new world called MySpace.

Let’s get started…

Order your copy of My Space, My Kids

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Jason IllianJason Illian's role on ABC's The Bachelorette has opened doors for him to speak across America on abstinence, transformational leadership, and faith. He is also the author of Undressed: The Naked Truth about Love, Sex, and Dating.

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