United Methodists explore cyber safety


By Jeanette Pinkston
United Methodist News Service

NASHVILLE — The nebulous world of cyberspace is a huge mission field for the church.

Such was the opening message at a United Methodist conference exploring topics dealing with “CyberSAFEty in Ministry.”

The Oct. 1-3 event was sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. About 150 people from across the United States gathered in Nashville to share strategies and tools to harness the potential gift that technology promises in an environment of stewardship and safety.

“I think it’s important for churches to consider a presence in cyberspace because that is where the people are,” said Paul O’Briant in his opening address.

Director of technology for Currituck County Schools in North Carolina, O’Briant cited U.S. statistics that 143 million people use the Internet, and that two-thirds of Internet users have searched for spiritual topics online.

“So much of the population uses cyberspace on a daily basis and searches for answers in that space, so we need to be there where they are,” he said.

Lurking dangers
With the opportunities of cyberspace come dangers as well.

“I think it’s important if we are going to go into that space we understand the dangers and how to keep our people safe. Understanding that our kids and congregations are already in those spaces, we need to provide them the tools they need to keep safe,” he said.

O’Briant reported that some 27,000 registered sex offenders have MySpace accounts, and half of American youth have MySpace accounts. The average age of initial exposure to Internet pornography is 11, and there are an estimated 100,000 Web sites that feature child pornography.

“Cyber safety needs to be a part of our Safe Sanctuary planning and implementation,” said O’Briant, noting that the church and its leaders are far from immune to the growing problem of sexual addictions.

A 2000 survey by Christianity Today indicated that about 40 percent of clergy had acknowledged visiting sexually explicit Web sites.

In 1996, the denomination’s top legislative body passed a resolution calling on every church to develop policies and procedures to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse in its ministries and facilities. Regional training sessions followed, inviting conferences to send representatives who could return and train local churches on Safe Sanctuary procedures.

Ministry teams representing local congregations, 44 conferences, four agencies and camping and retreat professionals were among participants at the cyber safety conference. Event organizers hope participants will return to their ministries and create policies, goals and action plans related to the safe use of technology.

A tool for predators
“Internet safety with kids is so important because the problem is prevalent, and exposure to inappropriate material and file sharing are growing,” said Tom Evans, an agent investigator with Internet Crimes Against Children.

Evans has seen a rise in the number of cases involving children, including (in order of prevalence):

  • Possession of child pornography
  • Distribution of child pornography
  • Solicitation of a minor
  • Manufacturing of child pornography
  • Endangering the welfare of a child

“There is a need for legislation to put offenders behind bars for crimes against a child. We need to increase sentencing guidelines, and stiffer penalties are needed,” Evans told the conference.

Evans advised participants to:

  • Reign technology in, remembering that “kids don’t need to be that wired”
  • Encourage parents to have a MySpace account
  • Ensure that kids don’t include identifying information on social networking sites such as MySpace and FaceBook
  • Know all user names and passwords
  • Leave off names and limit the number of photographs posted on social networking sites

Fifty-five percent of all online Americans age 12-17 use online social networking sites such as MySpace, according to Pew Internet Research.

Meanwhile, the typical profile of an Internet child sex offender is a white male ranging in age from 19 to 70, according to Evans.

“It is not unheard of for children to be abducted. Anything that identifies a child on a Web site can be used by a predator to focus on where a child is located,” he said.

Alerting participants to the dangers of file sharing, Evans warned that “it is not just in big cities. It’s everywhere. File sharing is important because it lets us know how prevalent child porn is. Kids are using this for free.”

Society must be vigilant to monitor the Web and safeguard against dangers as the Internet continues to evolve, participants were told.

“Cyber safety is not a one-time event,” said the Rev. Stephen Streett, an associate pastor from the North Georgia Annual Conference. “We must have an awareness of youth culture … and find out what they are listening to.”