It was supposed to be a joke. The Muslim woman thought it would be funny to post a picture of herself and some friends holding beer bottles on Facebook, even though she didn’t consume alcohol. But for the person who saw the photo, copied it, and emailed it to the mother of this woman’s fiance—it wasn’t funny. She promptly canceled the engagement. This was even after the woman swore to her that she didn’t drink, and that the picture was meant to be humorous.

“Marriages and engagements have been broken because of Facebook,” noted Shahina Siddiqui as she shared this incident. She’s seen firsthand how online media continue to negatively affect Muslims. Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Social Services Association’s Canada branch, has counseled Muslim youth and families for over two decades. “Many of us are not on Facebook, don’t understand Twitter, and don’t know the influence social media has on young minds,” she said. She advises parents to never let their guard down once their children are online.

In the us, as of Sept. 2009, 73 Percent of online American teens ages 12 to 17 had used a social networking website, according to the Pew Internet and American Life survey. A 2007 study by Cox Communications Inc. And the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children noted that 47 percent of teens say they are not worried about others using their personal information online in ways they do not want, and 49 percent say they are unconcerned about posting material that might negatively affect their future.

“The dangers of online activity by, but not limited to, our young people are numerous,” said Imam Khalid Herrington (director, Sirat Services, Roselle, il). “Everything from online predators, cyberbullying, unlimited sources of misinformation, explicit material, a black hole where time can be endlessly wasted, etc. Can potentially have a dramatic effect on the mental maturation and the quality of life in relation to our youth. ” Facebook, web-surfing, and watching videos on youtube, make up the bulk of parental concern. A recent addition to this list is access to the web via cellphone, as well as cellphone texting. According to a 2008 national survey by ctia — The Wireless Association and Harris Interactive, four out of five American teens carry a wireless device, 42 percent say they can text blindfolded, and 57 percent see their cellphone as the key to their social life. Many Muslim parents have completely curbed or limited their children’s access, regardless of age, to all of them through various means. These include not allowing them to have a Facebook account at all, applying as many controls on the computer as possible to block access to inappropriate material online, as well as keeping track of which websites their children have visited. Age limits are a crucial tool when dealing with kids’ media use. “At 8, 9, or 10 I don’t know why kids need an email account,” said Habeeb Quadri (co-author, “The War Within Our Hearts: Struggles of the Muslim Youth”). He felt the same way about cellphones. Parents often give their children cellphones to ensure their safety and security, but Quadri said this is largely unnecessary before college. “If something happens, the school will call you. There’s a lot of nonsense now, even with the phone,” he explained. For parents whose children do have cellphones, constant vigilance is critical. One mother of four who wished to remain anonymous said that she receives all of her children’s cellphone and text messages via email. Such vigilance is practiced by many parents for online use as well. “We set up their accounts so that any incoming email to them is automatically forwarded to us,” said Khalid Mozaffar, an Orland Park, il father of three children, ages 15 and under. “We talked to them about it and set it up as a condition to get an email address. By monitoring emails at the earlier age, we are able to detect signs of bullying, peer pressure, language use, where we can hopefully nip it in the bud if it occurs.” While many parents use filtering software to block out inappropriate material online, some feel this is not enough.

“I honestly dont think anything short of literally standing over your child’s shoulder, or pre-approving every site your child visits will truly keep them from being exposed to things they shouldn’t be exposed to,” said Nikia Bilal, a mother of four from Chicago. “Just a few months ago, we had an ‘incident’ when my nine-year-old daughter did a Google search for a teen actress she was looking up, clicked on a link that purported to have pictures of the actress in question, and instead was redirected to a porn site replete with women in various states of undress,” she said. Like Bilal, other parents feel in-person monitoring is essential.

“My husband or I are always at their side,” said Naheed Sheikh, a mother of two from San Francisco. “We don’t allow them to surf the web without any supervision, even when they are looking at photographs of their cousins through my Facebook account.” “When they are on the ’net, I make sure I am beside them,” added Reena Bashir, a Sterling Heights, MI mother of two. “Sometimes, they request to see videos on YouTube, and again, I am right beside them to monitor.” Setting time limits is another method parents use to curb online and cellphone use in their families. “Restricting time on the computer is very important,” said Khadija Dawn Carryl, a mother of six in Elkridge, MD. “Weekends should be enough time to spend on it, or holidays, and days off.”

“At night, no one is allowed to have a cellphone in the room,” said the anonymous mother of four. In Zainab Murtaza’s Ottawa, Canada household, a time limit for all family members, adults and kids, is in place. For her children, ages 10 and 12, “Their time on the computer is limited due to our 6 p.m. cut off for ALL electronic devices rule,” she said. Murtaza and others added that putting the computer in a location frequented by all family members, like the kitchen or living room, is also key to ensuring no one misuses it. “The kids don’t have computers in their rooms,” she said. “They have access to two computers that are located in the loft, very open to my perusal.” Discussing rules of Internet use with kids is also essential before they tread online.

“I talk to them about chatting with people, let them know that people lie about their identity, and to be careful,” said Carryl. “I explain how important it is not to give out personal or private information, as well.” Siddiqui said parents need to have an informed discussion with their children about this topic as they would about other serious issues like drug use.

 

Cyberbullying

According to I-Safe, a non-profit focused on Internet safety education, 42 percent of kids have been bullied online, and one in four have had it happen more than once. This is something that tends to surface in the middle school years, a time when “life is all about friends,” said Quadri. He explained that insults, taunts, and bullying of the past were restricted to the schoolyard. Today, “it goes to everyone and it’s so hard to clear up. It circulates more quickly.” High profile cases of teenagers and college students who committed suicide after being bullied or harassed on Facebook, are just the extreme example of a problem that is becoming much more common. If a child is being cyberbullied, Quadri advised that parents immediately get involved. If the perpetrator is a fellow student, they should go to the school and talk to the principal. In the wake of the high profile suicides, a number of schools have started taking cyberbullying much more seriously. However, if a child’s school is unresponsive, parents should immediately contact the police before it’s too late. Cyberbullying is “psychologically torturing them and if kids have no hope they will go to extremes,” Quadri warned.

 

The trust issue

Most parents are aware of the need to guide their children to proper online use, but some waver between offering protection through surveillance and trusting their children. Herrington warns this ignores serious dangers. “It’s not a matter of trust. It’s a matter of particular realities that are undeniable,” he explained. “Mankind was created weak as stated by God in the Qur’an. These Internet usage parameters should not just be solely for children, but should apply to every member of the household. When our young people see that the rules are applicable to everyone, there can be no valid argument outside of those spurred by personal desire.” The anonymous mother of four agreed.“Kids are just too young to handle the responsibility of today’s technology,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with the kids. It’s just that the temptation is too strong and it’s so easy to go off on the wrong path. I just pray for all of our kids.”

 

Communication is king

In the online world, experts argue that “content is king”. That is, good content is what will win the most visitors to a website. For parents trying to help their children have a healthy online experience, good communication is king. “We have heard it before — over and over again — but in my mind, it is the bottom line to whatever path a concerned parent chooses: keep talking to your kids. Talk, discuss, and talk!” said Mozaffar. “One of the underlying issues is the lack of consistent meaningful interaction between parents and children,” said Herrington. “This interaction is what creates a bond that produces open avenues of communication later on in their relationship when tough issues must be addressed. Some of the more deviously minded youth will exploit this gap in the parent-child relationship to achieve their own desires by playing the angel in their parent’s presence and keeping their parents ignorant of what occurs outside of their presence,” he warned.

 

Even the most vigilant of parents cannot control everything, Siddiqui explained. The key is to have open communication.”By policing them, you know one password, but do you know the others?” she said, referring to the practice of setting up secret online accounts unknown to parents.“Children guard their Facebook accounts the way they guard their diaries,” she added.Quadri explained that building a good relationship with kids goes back to face-toface activities, like having dinner together, reading Qur’an together, and making family time a priority in general. He emphasizes the need to make this “nonchalant time,” when issues like grades and other serious topics are avoided, allowing family members to interact in a relaxed atmosphere. Quadri also advises parents to pay attention to who their children’s friends are by inviting them over, or offering to drive them to school and other places with their own kids. “When you’re driving, keep your antenna open for what they are talking about,” he suggested. Outside of making more time for family,

Herrington strongly recommended parents engage their children in healthy activities off the web as an alternative.“Parents [need to] make every effort to provide positive outlets for their children to spend their time,” he said. “In doing so, hopefully, our young people won’t have time to waste on the Internet, and an even greater hope is that they won’t even care about it.”

 

Samana Siddiqui, content manager of Sound Vision Foundation’s website (www.soundvision.com), is also reporter and columnist for the “Chicago Crescent”.

Photo credit: Merrill College of Journalism Press Releases via photopin cc