Snakes in the Garden

The World Wide Web is like a vast, sprawling garden, full of endless promise and opportunity. Yet it's a garden where harmful snakes slither. Let me point out four.

The most deadly and ferocious of the snakes is Destruction, a creature that lurks in wait and then strikes without warning. It can attack through bullying or online abuse; something that's not just bad news for children but for adults, too. Now that we are the 'global village', any criticism or attack, however baseless, can spread uncontrollably. Post a single careless tweet in the morning and by the end of the day you find yourself facing a wrecked career and a thousand emails filled with hate. Yet Destruction can also attack stealthily, stalking men and women as they gaze at pornography, quietly luring them into ever darker and more compulsive sites that wreck minds, lives and reputations.

In contrast, Distortion is an often unnoticed snake that attacks through an insidious, slow-acting poison that twists what we think without our realization. Because there is no supervision of the Web, what we read is frequently far from the truth and many websites have an agenda that is often not openly declared. Even seemingly impartial news sites now set out particular views on faith, politics, gender or sexuality in such a way as to make it seem ridiculous to hold any alternative position. Sometimes people make themselves vulnerable to Distortion's poison by seeking out websites that reinforce their own beliefs; so the racists may have their hate invigorated and the materialists may be encouraged in their greed. The Web has a phenomenal ability to amplify feelings of anger, loneliness, grief or lack of worth. Part of the problem is that because we tend to surf the Web in isolation there is no one with us to say, 'Don't be silly. That's nonsense!'

A third snake, camouflaged and hard to spot, is Deception. We all know about identity theft and scams for tricking us out of our bank details. Yet Deception has other tricks, notably making us unhappy with what we have. So pornography, with its staged artificiality, hints that even the most contented marriage is inadequate. More subtly, innumerable technical websites constantly nudge us that our car, phone or laptop is very much last year's model. Perhaps the most deadly act of Deception, and one that the lonely can fall for, is the lie that to be on the Web is to be part of a community. It isn't: to truly engage in a community is to be linked in a deep, direct way with flesh-and-blood human beings. The community of the Web is only an inadequate shadow of the real thing.

The final snake, Distraction, is a pretty little snake that is utterly harmless but which is so eye-catching that we waste hours watching it. Distraction lures us into following utterly trivial conversations, engaging in pointless forum threads or pursuing endlessly fascinating hyperlinks.

There are many responses to these snakes. The most basic are to recognise that they exist, to walk wary on the Web, to beware of reckless or aimless browsing, to 'abstain from all appearance of evil' (1 Thessalonians 5:22) and, above all, to exercise discipline. Remember, it's not a garden out there, it's a jungle.