GILFORD, N.H. — Everywhere computer professional Brian Heil looked at SoulFest 2011, he saw packs of young people trying to stay on schedule as they rushed from one rock concert, workshop or prayer meeting to another.
But first, there was one more text to send, one more Twitter tweet to tweet, one more Facebook status to update, one more snapshot to share, one more YouTube video to upload, just one more connection to make in the digital world that now shapes real life.
This year's festival (Aug. 3-6) drew nearly 13,000 Protestants and Catholics from throughout New England, which means there were about that many cellphones, smartphones, tablets and other digital devices on hand. The screens glowed like fireflies in the crowds that gathered for the rock concerts each night on the lower slopes of the Gunstock Mountain Resort.
"Everyone's connected everywhere. It's continuous. This is how our young people experience life today," Heil said during his "Protecting the Playground" workshop for parents and youth leaders at SoulFest. "They don't even look at the keys on their phones anymore when texting.
"Lots of kids are more comfortable texting than they are talking and having real relationships. They have trouble with face-to-face intimacy because they're so used to living their lives online and in text messages. Texting feels safer."
But the harsh reality is that the digital world is not safer, stressed the 52-year-old Heil, who has a quarter-century of experience as a digital networker and designer. While many pastors and parents have heard horror stories about children straying into dark corners online, few are aware of just how common these problems have become — even in their sanctuaries and homes.
This is the kind of danger and sin that religious leaders often fear discussing, precisely because these realities have not remained bottled up in the secular world. Thus, Heil urged his listeners to ponder the following statistics in his presentation, drawn from mainstream research in the past year:
Two-thirds of Americans under the age of 18 have reported some kind of negative experience while online. Only 45 percent of their parents are aware of this.
Forty-one percent of children say they have been approached online by some kind of stranger, possibly an older predator.
At least 25 percent of children report having seen nude or disturbingly violent images online. Heil is convinced this number has risen to 45 percent in the past year or so. The vast majority of children exposed to pornography first see these images on a computer in their own home.
"This is why, if I could convince parents to make one change in their homes, it would be to never put a computer behind a closed door. ... Keep them out in an open part of the house," he said.
Among teens, 45 percent report having sent or received a sexual text message of some kind. One in five say they have sent or received a nude or partially nude image, the phenomenon that has become known as "sexting."
Among teens with Internet access, 40 percent say they have been affected by cyberbullying activities, such as malicious changes being made to their Facebook pages after the theft of passwords.
"There are Christian kids doing this," said Heil, talking about various forms of cyberbullying. "Young people just go online and they open up. Things get emotional and they share what's on their hearts. They just can't help it. Then, before they know it, things can get mean and kids get hurt."
Meanwhile, he said, it's getting harder for adults to monitor what's happening in this "dark alley," in large part because young people are so much more skilled at social media than the adults who are paying for all of those smartphones and laptops. Many adults also fear legal complications if they try to trace their children's steps online. Some church leaders — with good cause — fear getting involved in social media and having the young misinterpret their motives.
Apathy is not the answer, however, since children are getting hurt.
"It's hard to do happy talk about this issue," Heil admitted. "It's painful and it's hidden and it's dark stuff. ... This is a test of whether our relationships really mean anything in the church today, whether there is such a thing as accountability."