I zoomed home to find my street blocked off with police cars and caution tape. All the neighbors were congregating down the block, peering down into a sinkhole gaping open in the sidewalk. One-foot-wide and twenty-five-feet-down. Rare for the Northeast. Easily fixed with stones and concrete slurry.
Nothing compared to the sinkholes in Florida that engulf entire homes or swallow semi-trucks, perched or parked unknowingly on unstable, water-filled ground. One minute the surface looks good, then cracks appear, warning of immanent trouble. I remember the day my brother’s Sweetwater neighbors were told to evacuate their home immediately; the dining room caved in two hours later.
Sinkholes are commonplace in Florida, but drastic visuals combined with neighbor interviews make for good tv, so they are featured over and over. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4zjQyN7ERA
In one dramatic newscast, a Central Florida TV13 anchor intones solemnly over footage of a home split in two, “People are amazed by the sight and struck by the tragedy.”
Neighbor John V. drawls, “This whole area is sinkhole prone. Not something you expect to come home to.”
His ten-year-old son Michael adds, “They’re very nice. It’s sad to see their house fall down.”
Finally, an unidentified neighbor sums it up, “Am I concerned about my house? Absolutely.”
Sinkholes swallow entire families, too. We’ve all helplessly watched it happen to a neighbor or friend. Drugs. Alcohol. Domestic violence. Lives fall apart. Dramatic, sad stories of sinkholes.
What about lesser-recognized, virtual sinkholes swallowing up more and more kids and their families with them? It starts simply enough on the smartphones and devices our kids keep glued to their hands and grows into inappropriate media exposure. Because of the starkly-negative effects of gaming violence on boys, I remember saying a few years ago to my sister, “The most dangerous thing in your home is that Game Cube.” Not true anymore.
With bored kids, simple curiosity turns into more than they bargained for in a few clicks. As the neighbor in the sinkhole report said, “It’s not something you expect to come home to.” Parents are unaware how bedroom websurfing; unsupervised nighttime visits to sketchy sites; chats with “new friends” a.k.a strangers; even competitive dares, one-up-manship, and locker-room boy-talk of “everyone’s trying it” can lead to impulsive, unsafe behavior all too quickly. Alarming and addictive content and unhealthy, virtual relationships can sink kids into pits of blackness. One first-grade boy I know did a web search on “boobs’ and, hilariously, came up with every gross picture of breast cancer, infection, and tumor imaginable. Thanks be to God! Aversion therapy! But was that his last search? Nope.
The dangers await behind the surface of our kids’ screens to suck them in. As parents or family and youth ministers, like those Florida neighbors, we rarely spot the cracks to realize the extent of the upcoming trouble.
I can easily think of at least six, Christian kids from six, strong. Christian families who dabbled with porn, sexting, high-risk chat sites, and the occult from the apparent safety of their bedrooms. Those are just the few who couldn’t hide their habits or mistakes any longer. Am I being overly dramatic like that Florida newscaster? No. The stats are earth-shaking and speak for themselves.
If your teen is unhappy, pulling away, becoming secretive, spending more and more time in front of a screen, defensive about computer use, or quickly changing screens when you approach, these are potential danger signs of internet addiction and unhealthy or unsafe computer use. http://www.helpguide.org/articles/addiction/internet-and-computer-addiction.html
Do parents stand a chance? What can we do to prevent sinkholes?
First, pray. Walk through your home and pray in and for all the spaces where your kids play, work, and sleep. Pray for your kids throughout the day and with them at bedtime. I am inspired by the faith of my great-grandparents who prayed daily for all the generations of our family, including those yet unborn, and their spouses. In our family, we count this as part of God’s faithful plan to draw my husband to Christ. Though he was raised in a vehemently atheistic family, now he’s a pastor. Parents do not need to throw up their hands in despair, for God cares about our children more than we do. Learning can happen even in and through these difficult circumstances.
Second, forgive. Both your child for crossing boundaries and yourself for missing the signs or trusting them. Find a counselor to help you work it through as a family. God can and does redeem all of us in and through brokenness. There’s comfort in Lamentations 3:51-58, from The Message,
When I see what’s happened to the young women in the city, the pain breaks my heart. Enemies with no reason to be enemies hunted me down like a bird. They threw me into a pit, then pelted me with stones. Then the rains came and filled the pit. The water rose over my head. I said, ‘It’s all over.’ I called out your name, O God, called from the bottom of the pit. You listened when I called out, ‘Don’t shut your ears! Get me out of here! Save me!’ You came close when I called out. You said, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ You took my side, Master; you brought me back alive!
In Sticky Faith, which I give my highest recommendation as a parenting book, Kara Powell encourages parents to find God’s hope and redemption even in hard circumstances:
Because our kids grow up in an increasingly complex and precarious world, filled with expectations and agendas that at times feel impossible to navigate, the odds are great that your child will ‘cross the line,’ or for some of our kids, catapult over the line. What do we do then? Default with compassion…. We are dispensers of God’s grace. Don’t panic. There are very few issues you will face as parents that are irredeemable, even the biggies…. Take the long view. The ultimate hope that is part and parcel of trusting God is the hope we have that in the long run, God’s mercy will win. We many not see it or experience it exactly the way we want to for months, or even years but trusting Christ means we believe that He is at work, bringing healing and redemption to the most hopeless of circumstances.
Third, turn it off. Have device-free meals and family outings. This may be harder for us adults, actually. We’re no less addicted. Focus on your kids and savor real-time interactions. Build memories and eat meals together. Should I be “concerned about my house? Absolutely.” Be present. Be proactive. Begin this week.
Monitor and limit device usage, especially at night. Most computers and tvs have parent controls, but how many of us technologically-challenged parents take time to learn and use them? Until today. Make new rules and new beginnings. No devices or phones in the bedrooms after a certain time. Though I was irritated beyond measure when my mom used to say, “Nothing good happens after midnight,” she was right. Screens before bed negatively impact sleep and health, too. George Frazier, the computer/internet guru at our school district, teaches parents how to restrict internet wifi access to kids’ devices during certain hours.
Change router settings and talk with your cell phone provider to turn off overnight access (note: calls to parents and 911 can always be allowed.) Parents can also block particular websites. Kids will have to plan ahead to make contact with friends or get homework done before the deadline or the parent can decide to override the schedule in necessary instances. Resist warnings or lectures. Say, “I put some safety measures in place in our home because I love you and want you to be free to be a kid and have fun online, not be tempted by unsafe or adult content.”
Frazier recommends iboss monitoring devices, which I found complicated. He has added a personal message that pops up for his kids whenever the iboss blocks a website or unsafe activity, “Do your homework.” My family uses the TeenSafe subscription service, which allows a parent to track texts, web history, cell location, and especially deleted messages. I keep different levels of monitoring for my thirteen-year-old boy than for my seventeen year-old girl. Not because I naively think girls are less susceptible to temptation, but at her life-stage, she is increasing her independence while I am actively coaching her to make her own good decisions before she leaves home next year. It takes vigilance and work to keep the devices neutralized in our homes.
Fourth, talk it over. Awkward, yes. Necessary? Yes. We cannot protect our kids from everything, especially when their innocent surfing for silly, fluffy cat videos on youtube can so easily turn into something eye-popping. Every parent, pre-teen, and teen need to have real conversations together about the temptations of and struggles with porn. Maybe have your kids role-play how to choose well and to say, “No, thanks. Let me show you my favorite music video–or parkour stunt video.” It’s the internet equivalent of “stranger danger” or DARE drug abuse education, which many of us parents were taught. Protect and prevent. Reassure our kids that we will love them no matter how easy or difficult they make their own lives, but some choices can lead to life-long struggles with sin and temptation. Or immediate danger from strangers posing as “friends.”
So what do sinkholes and smartphones share in common? An unsuspecting bystander, five minutes, and a deep pit.
Of course, you and your family can climb back out of the pit with God’s help, but why wait for disaster to take action? Be proactive to protect your kids. Don’t give into the draw of devices. Pray, forgive, turn it off, and talk it over. Today.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4zjQyN7ERA (accessed April 20, 2015.)
 http://www.covenanteyes.com/2010/08/19/teens-and-porn-10-stats-your-need-to-know/(accessed April 20, 2015.)
 Kara Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 45-46.
 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/23/reading-before-bed_n_6372828.html (accessed April 19, 2015.)