To 17-year-old Katie Gorrilla, Facebook.com is just another way to stay in touch with friends. A fun one, at that. The senior at Benilde-St. Margaret High School in St. Louis Park, Minn., says socializing via the Internet is quick and easy. Besides — you guessed it — “everyone does it.”
But her parents say they can’t keep up with technology fast enough to monitor it. When it comes to social-networking sites like Facebook, they feel like poorly armed security guards in their own home. How to hold the line against online intruders, stalkers, pests, predators and other unwanted virtual visitors?
Not to mention immoral or vapid content that can tempt kids into, at best, wasting colossal amounts of time and, at worst, descending to the depths of immorality.
“We know that, with the kids going back to school, everyone will have the latest thing,” says mom, Mary Kay, 51. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned. I like conversation on the phone or meeting with people.”
Her husband, Tom, 56, says he never figured on technology-based pitfalls when he looked ahead to raising kids.
“When we grew up,” he says, “we played outside in the neighborhood. Not worldwide on a computer.” Their other children, 16-year-old Molly and 12-year-old Thomas, are also growing up tech-savvy in a gadget-happy world.
With battle lines drawn, Tom and Mary Kay rely on old-fashioned communication, and a few security measures, to maintain order and keep the peace.
“Mary’s the master,” says Tom. “She delegates to the children how much time they have online and she prints out a daily report so we can see what areas they’ve been looking at.”
“We’re trying to build a trust factor with them,” he adds, “but kids push the boundaries.”
During the summer, the computer is shut down to a bare minimum and the kids have to ask permission before booting up. Through a parental-control feature with America Online, the Gorrillas’ Internet access will freeze if anyone browses into a restricted area.
Meanwhile Katie gets limited time on her cell phone, on which text messaging is all the rage, and has to pay for any minutes over the limit.
“There are stricter parents than us, but I like to know where they’re at, at all times,” says Mary Kay. “It’s our job to protect her.”
Text messaging became a headache for Jacques Daniels, a youth minister for the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rapid City, S.D., when he led 168 high-schoolers to Denver for a youth conference this summer. No electronic devices were allowed, but the kids were covertly text-messaging from their cell phones.
“It was interfering with what we were trying to accomplish at the conference. One girl was text messaging as we were entering into Eucharistic adoration,” he says, recalling that the girl claimed her activity was very important. “She was totally distracted.”
Daniels, whose own three children are all under 5, doesn’t have a battle at home — yet — but notices the aggressive technology marketing on educational sites for parents of toddlers. And he knows how deeply immersed in the Internet kids are today. By his youth ministry he’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.
“You can’t monitor it all the time, so you have to build virtue and responsibility in the home, and help them make wise choices for the greater glory of God,” he says.
Daniels uses Facebook to reach high-school kids. He notices they’re on it “all the time” and they respond quicker and more enthusiastically to his communication than they would an e-mail or phone call.
As a Web user with profiles on both Facebook and MySpace.com, Daniels sees a big difference between the two.
“In terms of safety, MySpace is a wreck. It doesn’t take much to get into some bad stuff,” he says. “I have a MySpace account but rarely use it. I’ve noticed that I can click on people’s pages and go from there to a friend of a friend of a friend, seeing people’s profiles without their permission.”
MySpace boasts 180 million profiles and 240,000 new users a day, according to ComScore Inc., a market-research company. A person’s profile can be viewed by anyone on the website, which can attract unwanted solicitations and the junk e-mail known as spam.
In July, ComScore said it had found 29,000 registered sex offenders with profiles on MySpace, after already removing 7,000 offenders. It does have privacy settings for minors, but it’s up to parents to set them. Some lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would require parental permission for children to create social-networking profiles.
For its part, Facebook started as a social-networking site for college students. It opened to the public in September of 2006 and, by May of this year, had blossomed to 26.6 million users. Along with young people, it also attracts adults looking to communicate with peers in a less chaotic environment. Facebook requires a surfer to ask your permission before viewing your profile.
Daniels convinced Rapid City’s vocation director, Father Brian Christensen, to create a Facebook page to promote vocations. He has 28 permission-granted “friends” in his network — kids he has gotten to know from his parish, vocation retreats and other activities. When he has an event, he uploads the info and sends invitations to everyone in his network.
“It’s a great way for me to build a community of young adults in the diocese and stay in touch with them,” he says. “When they go off to college, I can still communicate with them on a regular basis and invite them to a dinner when they’re back in town.”
Adam Sparling, 23, a third-year seminarian at St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Lincoln, Neb., started a group on Facebook called “We Need More Vocations.” The group was designed for seminarians to encourage prayer for more vocations in the diocese and the world. He opened it up to the public and found it was soon evangelizing everyone from atheists to young men considering the priesthood.
He gets private e-mails from people who are curious about the Catholic faith and the priesthood. Some ask what they need to do if they are feeling called to the priesthood.
“You can stick a flyer up and people walk, but you stick it up on Facebook and people are all over it,” Sparling says. “You have to meet kids where they’re at, but we can’t lose our personal relationships. In my own discernment into the seminary, the first thing I hit was the Internet.”
He has found, as the Gorrilla family and many other Catholic families are learning, that social-networking sites are — like the Internet as a whole — neither intrinsically good nor inherently evil. They’re a medium whose message can be used to either end.
As Pope John Paul II put it in his 2002 World Communications Day message: “The Internet can offer magnificent opportunities for evangelization [and catechesis] if used with competence and a clear awareness of its strengths and weaknesses.”
So, too, MySpace and Facebook — and, come to think of it, even text messaging.
Barb Ernster writes from