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Family Room

On June 16, 1998, more than a million people around the globe—this reporter included—booted up their computers and logged onto the Web to witness what was billed as the world's first live Internet birth. (Traffic was so heavy that only about 50,000 of us actually got to see some of it.) After 40-year-old Elizabeth Ann Oliver, accompanied by her husband, Gilberto, and three children, arrived at Florida's Arnold Palmer Hospital at 6:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, the world and I settled in to watch and wait over four hours as Elizabeth calmly delivered a healthy seven pound, eight ounce boy named Sean.

Our stomachs turned as a long epidural needle twisted in her back. We chuckled when one of her young daughters grew impatient and asked for a donut. We groaned as Elizabeth struggled in those last few moments to push her baby into the world. Then we smiled and laughed as Sean's first plaintive cries pierced the sterile hospital air. Some of us even prayed along when Dr. Walter Larimore sought God's blessing for the family and salvation for its newest member. What started as a research project had turned personal for me.

Ten days later, headlines screamed, "Internet Mom Wanted!" Elizabeth's family was on the lam, running from Florida law enforcement. A history of check fraud stretched back to 1989. They skipped town, then thought better of it and turned themselves in. When I got the news, I remembered witnessing the miracle of birth and feeling a bond with that family. Suddenly, I felt cheated. Maybe even a little dirty. Could it be that the beauty of our "shared" experience may not have been as authentic as thousands of us believed?

The Web has come a long way since then. Now it seems normal to watch all manner of events, both live and canned, private and public. They call to us from YouTube and live-stream websites. But that just makes the subject at hand all the more important. Webster defines a voyeur as "a prying observer who is usually seeking the sordid or the scandalous." Synonyms include "peeper" and "Peeping Tom"—words that 50 years ago brought up images of perversion and psychosis. Now we've built entertainment franchises around them that ping-pong back and forth between the TV, movies and the Internet.

Every day, countless people the world over surf millions of websites featuring those who have digitally photographed and displayed images of themselves—and others. Exploiting users' discontent with their own "humdrum" existences, one site I researched greets visitors with this slogan: "Live vicariously through your monitor right now. Hit the trendiest clubs, bum the beach, prowl the streets. Let us take you there."

Those vicarious thrills often are, as Webster put it so succinctly, "sordid or scandalous." Cameras are pointed at toilets and bathroom stalls, bedrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms. The tantalizing prospect of seeing a live sex act or a glimpse of nudity compels scores of teenagers (and their elders) to flit from site to site, searching for a surge of endorphin, a rush of adrenaline, a hit of decadence.

Still, there's more to fear than the blatantly pornographic. Subtle psychological dangers make voyeurism a volatile pastime. Our cultural obsession with vicarious living teaches young people that they are only as important as the number of people watching them (a far cry from Matthew 6:1-6). This can create apathy and depression since most teens realize they are not destined for even 15 minutes of fame. It also implies that passive participation provides as much satisfaction as active involvement.

Are we indeed turning into a world of "watchers" instead of "doers"? If so, Scripture clearly details the consequences and the antidote: "The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied" (Proverbs 13:4). God wants our families to impact the world for Him, not settle for the "nothingness" of idly watching the culture as it impacts them.

Published June 2011