Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

How to Surf with Virtual Integrity

  • Whitney Hopler Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • Updated Aug 25, 2008
How to Surf with <i>Virtual Integrity</i>

Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Daniel J. Lohrmann's new book, Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web, (Brazos Press, 2008). 

A student downloads and submits someone else’s work as her own research paper. A man watches Internet pornography on his work laptop while on a business trip. A young girl pretends to be someone else online, attracting the attention of a middle-aged man pretending to be a cute teen guy. Each one will face serious consequences.

Most people take steps to protect themselves against identity theft online. But there’s an even more dangerous online threat: integrity theft. People who don’t guard against the many temptations the Internet presents can easily find themselves stripped of their integrity and compromising their faith.

The solution? Making sure that the values you live by offline guide the way you surf online. Here’s how you can surf your values:

Realize what’s at stake. The decisions you make online aren’t just casual ones; what you do online affects every part of your life. If you act in unproductive, harmful, or immoral ways online, doing so will compromise your character, your relationships, your job, and every other part of your life – including your faith.

Match your online life with your offline life. Don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t do offline. Eventually your online behavior will transform your sense of right and wrong and spill over into all aspects of your life. If you wouldn’t say a particular thing to someone face to face, avoid typing it in an e-mail or instant message. If you wouldn’t visit a strip club in real life, don’t visit a pornographic website. Remember that, even if you’re playing an avatar in a virtual online world, you’re still you. So be yourself. Decide what you will do before you go online, and do what you’ve said once you’re connected. Think before you click. Consider the full impact of what may happen before you click on any new page on the Internet. Ask yourself: “Am I being a hypocrite by clicking?”

Secure your computer – and yourself. Install antivirus and filtering software to protect your computer from a wide range of common risks. But realize that, even with the best technology, you’re not immune to encountering dangerous websites. Keep in mind that even the best filters can’t block all harmful sites. And if you or others in your household are tempted to visit sites your filter does block, it’s not hard to bypass the filter, turn it off, or use another computer without a filter. Focus on training yourself – not just your computer – to avoid harm online. Regularly conduct an online risk assessment for yourself and your family, and implement security and privacy checklists recommended as best practices by experts. You can find such lists at places like: www.onguardline.gov/, www.staysafeonline.org/, and www.netsmartz.org/index.htm.

Don’t be fooled. Huge amounts of information are coming at you constantly online, and some of it is from people who may not be truthful or have the best intentions. Beware of the cheating that occurs online, from people plagiarizing others’ resumes and obtaining fake academic degrees from online “universities,” to illegally copying digital music, photos, e-books, and other copyrighted content. Understand that individuals may be lying about their names, ages, and location when communicating online, and that businesses may be misrepresenting the facts about products they sell through their websites. Pray for the discernment you need when evaluating the information you get online. Check sources and references.

Don’t fool yourself. Examine your motives each time before you go online so you can clearly and honestly understand why you’re thinking and acting the way you are – and avoid deceiving yourself by letting your online experiences shape you instead of vice versa. Do you want to log on to a social networking site just to engage in interesting conversations, or to make yourself feel popular by adding names to your buddy list, even if they’re not all genuine friends? Do you find yourself visiting websites devoted to topics that you say you don’t really care about? Remember that your surfing patterns often reveal the true desires of your heart. How much time are you really spending online? Are you online when you should be doing something else, yet find it hard to cut back? Before sending a message to someone online, read it and consider if that’s what you really intend to communicate, or if you’ve written something in haste or anger that you’ll regret later.

Be careful at work. Take a hard look at the ways you use the Internet at work as well as at home. Remember that doing great work isn’t an excuse for using work time to surf the Internet in inappropriate ways. Talk with your boss about exactly how you should and shouldn’t be spending your time online on the job. Don’t cut into your productivity by spending time during the workday on frivolous activities like doing online shopping, playing fantasy sports games online, or surfing through celebrity gossip sites. Avoid visiting sites that could get you into trouble at work, like those that relate to gambling or pornography. Ask yourself: “What would happen if my boss or other company leaders knew everywhere I surf online, and for how long? Can I defend my actions?”, “What if my pastor, spouse, or trusted coworkers discovered my actions?”, “Will I view my surfing habits as positive or negative five years from now?”, “Are my actions honoring to God?” and “Is my behavior helping or hurting my company?”.

Refresh your values in cyberspace. Reexamine your offline beliefs (those you follow in the real world) based on the Bible. Compare and contrast your online and offline thoughts and behaviors. Discuss this with some people you trust. Then establish a renewed list of values and behaviors for online life.

Pledge personal online integrity. Articulate your desire to align your online life with the values you profess by creating a personal Internet mission statement. Share it with some of your closest friends and family, and consider even posting it publicly, such as to your personal pages on MySpace or Facebook.

Seek trusted accountability. Ask someone you trust (like your spouse or sibling or close friend) to meet with you regularly to discuss your online life and encourage you to set and maintain the right boundaries.

Apply helpful technology. Research products like Internet access devices that can help you make healthy choices about how you use the Internet. Select the ones that meet your specific needs. Install and configure them. Maintain the technology well, and regularly reassess your technology needs as circumstances change.

Balance online and offline life. Constantly analyze when to use the Internet and when to turn it off and spend more time in the real world. If you find it hard to unplug when you need to, consider these tips: Set time parameters for each online task so you don’t get lost in cyberspace, try to limit your time online to certain times of the day, close your e-mail and turn off your instant messaging and RSS feeds while you’re trying to focus on a task, keep your goal in mind when you do Internet searches, and keep a running list of interesting links you uncover rather than just clicking on them right away.

Practice humble authenticity. Make sure that when you’re online, you’re representing yourself for who you really are. Regularly and honestly examine your values – and let those values guide you when you surf the Internet. Stay away from places online that you know tempt you to sin. When communicating with others online, identify yourself as a Christian whenever it’s appropriate to do so, and make decisions that reflect what Jesus might do if He were online.

Become a cyber ambassador for good. Beyond just avoiding bad behavior online, you can use the Internet as a powerful force for good. Instead of retreating from important topics, engage others in conversations about them and help redeem cyberspace in the process. Speak up with the truth in loving ways when you interact with others online. Get to know the Bible well so you’ll be prepared to communicate its truth to others online. Don’t take yourself too seriously, flaunt your faith, or condemn others. Instead, be relaxed and upbeat when you share your faith. Listen to people patiently, pray for them, and steer conversations in positive directions. Help build and maintain websites to support your church and service efforts through ministries, charities, and other organizations in your community. Start a blog on a topic that interests you and provide a Christian perspective on it. Be creative as you think and pray through ways you can represent Christ well in cyberspace.

Adapted from Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web, copyright 2008 by Daniel J. Lohrmann. Published by Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Mich., www.brazospress.com
Daniel J. Lohrmann, an award-winning computer security expert, directs the State of Michigan’s Office of Enterprise Security and is Michigan’s chief information security officer. He was named the 2008 Chief Security Officer of the Year by SC Magazine and one of the 25 most influential people in the security industry by Security Magazine. A sought-after speaker at technology conferences around the country, he lives with his wife and four children in Grand Ledge, Michigan.