Monday, April 17, 2006

The MySpace Controversy

In the last few months, numerous Independent Baptist churches, colleges, and schools have been rocked by the MySpace controversy. As with so many other current issues, legal concerns abound. If you want the insight of an Independent Baptist attorney about this increasingly popular but controversial Internet site and how to respond to it, read on.

PERSONAL BACKGROUND. Any time that you read an article about the Internet, be aware of the author's background. As for this author:
• I am 57 years old, thus 40 or so years removed from the MySpace generation.
• I remember when computers were the size of a large room.
• I graduated from law school 30 years ago (in 1976), before computers invaded the hallowed halls of academia.
• I worked as a lawyer for nearly 20 years before I sullied my fingers with a computer keyboard.
In other words, I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the computer age, whereas the youth of today have grown up immersed and fully wired in the brave new world of the Internet, chat rooms, text messaging, and blogging.

MYSPACE. MySpace describes itself as "a place for friends." Frankly, I don't relate to MySpace; most people my age don't relate to virtual hangouts or virtual community centers. I am accustomed to dealing with people face to face; I am notorious for loathing the impersonality of drive-thru windows at banks and fast food places. However, before I can address the MyPlace controversy, I must first discuss this new form of interactive media.
• MySpace was formed in 2003 in California. In 2005 it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., owner of Fox News.
• MySpace provides online space to teenagers and young adults to post personal pictures, profiles, and blogs.
• The membership of MySpace as of January 2006 was about 40,000,000 teenagers and young adults (yes, that number is forty million!!!!).

How do you personally compare to this MySpace generation? Consider the results of a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study: teenagers aged 15 to 18 average nearly 6 and a 1/2 hours a day watching TV, playing video games, surfing the Net, and social networking on the Net (e.g., MySpace). How do I compare?
• I don't even own a TV!
• I wouldn't waste my time playing a video game!
• I search the Net for research on specific projects; I am as likely to "surf" the Net as surf at Waikiki!
• The average teenager spends one hour and 22 minutes per day social networking on the Internet; I spend 0 hours and 0 minutes!

DANGERS IN MYSPACE AND OTHER SOCIAL NETWORKS. MySpace is just one of numerous social Networks (others include Facebook, Friendster, Buzz-Oven, and Xanga).
• Before we Baptists became concerned, several public schools, private schools, Catholic schools, and even libraries restricted access to MySpace because it has become "such a haven for student gossip and malicious comments."
• A quick view of the MySpace website reveals "profanity-laced comments, off-color topics and suggestive photos."
• Such social Networks have become an obvious target for "online enticement."
• Some private schools have even banned their pupils from accessing MySpace at home.

WHAT CAN PASTORS, EDUCATORS, AND PARENTS DO TO PROTECT THEIR CHILDREN?

1. Pastors, educators, and parents who are Internet savvy may ask "Doesn't the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (effective April 21, 2000) protect children from such Internet danger?" The general answer is No; teenagers and young adults voluntarily sign up to join MySpace, either wittingly or unwittingly giving up their privacy to the whole world!

2. Are there any privacy concerns if pastors, educators, and parents monitor their students or children online? Once again, the answer is No. Young people who become members of MySpace, opening up their personal and private lives not only to friends but also to all of the perverts in the entire world, can hardly expect legal protection from a concerned pastor, educator, or parent monitoring them online.

3. Should Baptist parents allow their children to join MySpace? That is a family question, not a legal question. In my personal opinion, a responsible parent should prohibit his teenager from going to MySpace unless that parent did NOT object to his teenager being exposed to the following: "student gossip and malicious comments," "profanity-laced comments, off-color topics and suggestive photos," and "online enticement."

Proverbs 29:15 applies as much to the current generation as it did in Solomon's day: "a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame." If a parent allows his child access to the Internet, then the parent should (1) become savvy enough to monitor the child's Internet use and to conduct personal research on MySpace and other similar social Networks, then (2) search the Scriptures, pray about the matter, seek the pastor's counsel, and make Biblically and spiritually correct decisions for the family.

4. Should Baptist pastors prohibit teenagers in the church from joining MySpace? A pastor can warn the teenagers in church about smoking, gambling, drinking, and drugs, but he can't monitor their activities full time. On the other hand, membership in MySpace can be monitored online with a click of the mouse. I know of at least one Baptist preacher who forbids teenagers in the church youth group from belonging to MySpace. In light of the controversy raging today, I would encourage Baptist preachers to conduct personal research on MySpace and other similar social Networks, then search the Scriptures, pray about the matter, and seek God's will on whether and how he should confront the issue of social Networking.

5. Should Baptist educators prohibit teenagers in the church school or Bible college from joining MySpace? Each school has the right to set its own policies and standards for admission and discipline; if the school has a clearly written policy which forbids unscriptural conduct or prohibits students from belonging to such social Networks, the church may lawfully enforce such policies without fear of lawsuits by either disgruntled students or parents.

CONCLUSION. If you are like me, being kicked and dragged into the Internet age, you may not be aware of the pervasiveness and danger of social Networks. But I have come to the same conclusion that the Apostle Paul came to nearly 2,000 years ago: "Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness, and sin not" (I Corinthians 15:33-34). We must get our heads out of the sand, become informed about the dangers of this new potentially harmful interactive media, then take appropriate steps to protect our children in the home, church, and school.

On the other hand, we can't ignore or deny that our children are living in this brave new wireless world. We must also do our homework to find positive, constructive, safer alternatives for our teenagers in this MySpace-dominated world. Do you have any ideas?

God bless you all!

TERRY LEE HAMILTON

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