The letter below is based on one that Cori Bromfield wrote to a friend’s preteen daughter to help them to discuss fandom and online safety together. While many people may not be aware of fanfiction, it is part of the lives of increasing numbers of teens, preteens and adults, and is rapidly becoming mainstream. While our immediate reaction may be to flee, fandom and fanfiction is not inherently sinful. Our prayer is that this letter, which uses some of Cori’s experiences of fandom to educate young people about it, may help parents and leaders to engage with this area of culture, and teach those in their care to be discerning and wise in their decisions.
It’s lovely to have the opportunity to write to you, and I want to use this letter in a way that will be helpful for you, so I’d like to talk about staying safe on the internet. I’m sure that you’ve been told that this is really important, and I hope that you take being safe online seriously.
As you’re getting older, you are probably going to encounter new things online, and perhaps be curious, or tempted to look at things without knowing what you’re opening. Have you ever felt that feeling of “But if I don’t click I’ll never know!”? I promise you, I understand how strong that feeling can be. But I can also tell you that I have clicked on those links sometimes – and it’s been a mistake. I hope that you’ll let me tell you a little bit about myself now, and I pray that this will mean that you want to listen to the advice I have about using the internet.
I became a Christian when I was an adult, and when I was your age I wasn’t worried about what God wants, and I wasn’t bothered about whether he thought that something was good for me or not – I wanted to decide that for myself. One of the ways I decided what was good for me was in how I used the internet. Now that I have come to know that Jesus loves me and has saved me, God has also taught me that lots of things that I looked at were not good for me. They weren’t good for me then, and they have made it harder for me to think and act in ways that God likes now. I have said sorry to God for looking at them, and I know he has forgiven me, but if I could start my life over again I would change how I used the internet.
Because I know that there are lots of things online that are unhelpful, or scary, or could hurt you, I want to help you to know whether to look at something or not. That means that you need to know a little bit about some of the things that are online, so that you will be ready to say “No,” if you stumble across them and get that “But if I don’t click I’ll never know!” feeling. This letter won’t talk about everything, but it will tell you about some things that I know about. There are lots of other things to be careful with online, so please talk to your Mum or Dad about how to use the internet safely.
One of the fantastic things about the internet is that you can meet people all around the world who are interested in the same things you are. Perhaps you have a favourite TV show, or band, or book; it can be lots of fun to talk about that with your friends at school, but they don’t always love it as much as you do. On the internet you can meet people who have the same favourite things as you. That can be a good thing, and it can be fun to make friends and talk to people who love the same things as you; but you need to remember that, like your friends at school, these people might not be Christians. That means that they might be thinking about your favourite things in ways that God says are not good, so you need to be careful about what you look at when you want to enjoy your favourite things online.
The word “fandom” is used online to talk about groups of people who like a certain thing. For example, the “Doctor Who fandom” is a community of people who enjoy Doctor Who. There will be lots of different people in the fandom, people of different ages, male and female, from different places, but they will all share a love of Doctor Who. That sounds great, and it can be fun, but the problem is that other people might love Doctor Who as much as you do, but some of the things they want to do to enjoy it aren’t necessarily good things to be doing.
One thing that happens a lot in fandom online is creativity. Some people like to write their own stories about things that could happen to the characters they like; this is called “fanfiction,” or just “fic”. Other people like to make art inspired by the thing that they like, this is called “fanart”. You might have done something like that yourself – perhaps you have imagined or even written stories, or drawn pictures of your favourite characters. I want to be really clear that fandom, and fanfiction, and fanart are not simply bad things. The Bible tells us that God created everything, and he created us in his image. We have been designed by God to be creative people. That means that writing and art, just like music and poetry, can be good things to do. Fanfiction and fanart can help you to develop your imagination, and learn to be even more creative. The problem is that when you are looking at a fandom community online, it can be hard to know whether what you want to look at is going to be safe for you, or good for you. I want to help you to think about that.
You know that there are some films and books that are too old for you at the moment, and there are also some films and books that people like me and your parents choose not to watch, even though we are old enough, because we know that they have content that God would not like. When we choose whether to watch a film or not, we can look at the rating it has to help us make a decision – is it a U, or PG, or 12a, 15, 18 etc.? If it is an 18 certificate film, I don’t think your Mum and Dad are going to want you to watch it!
When you are online, there are no official rating systems. However, most communities will have some sort of informal agreement that authors should give you an indication of what is in their story. You need to know that these aren’t always reliable, but they can be helpful. They can act as a warning sign that something is not a good thing to look at – but that only works if you know what the ratings mean!
The ratings that fandoms use are different to the ones you see on films or computer games. The most commonly used ones go like this:
The author is saying that what they have written should be suitable for anyone. It shouldn’t have people having sex, or violence, or bad language in it. But please remember that some people think that a little bit of sex/violence/bad language is fine, and might say something is “G” when you still wouldn’t want to read it.
“parental guidance 13 years”
This is more like a film 12a rating than a film PG rating. The author is saying that parents might be happy for their children to see this, but if your child is under 13 please check carefully. It might mention people having sex, or violence, or characters dying. Fandom doesn’t usually think that bad language is a problem, so something with a PG-13 rating might have really bad words in it – words that I don’t want to write in this letter, but that would get you into a lot of trouble if you used them at home.
- PG-13 is the highest level that I usually think might be ok for me to read online. Lots of fanfiction is about romantic relationships between characters, and if something has one of the two higher ratings (below) it’s probably because of people having sex.
This will probably include people having sex, written down in quite a lot of detail. It might have violence, also with detail. There are no restrictions on bad language. This is roughly a 15-18 certificate film.
If you see this in fandom it almost always means there will be people having sex, written down with lots of detail.
Someone who has made fanart might use the same ratings system. That way “G” might be “this is what I think Harry Potter would look like if he turned into a dog,” but “R” would be somebody naked and “NC-17” would show people having sex.
I hope that you would definitely want to stay away from R and NC-17!
Some sites use different ratings systems, but nearly all sites will have one. If the site you’re on has a different one, make sure you find out how the rating system works so you can make wise decisions. One really important thing to remember is that people don’t always use these ratings consistently, and it’s not unusual to rate something lower than it should be. Please read descriptions too, and if in doubt I suggest you avoid it.
Other terms to be aware of
Ratings aren’t the only way to decide if something should be ok to look at. Stories and fanart might also have a summary, description, or “tags” that give you more information about the content than the ratings do. Tags are a way for people to search for stories they want to read. All the writers upload their stories to one site (like everyone uploads videos to Youtube). The writer can then choose the tags that fit their story. You can tag it with the names of the main characters, the type of story it is (romance, adventure etc.), any romantic relationships that will be included etc. That way, if I want to read stories about Professor Snape, I can search for all the stories that have the “Snape” tag. Tags and descriptions can be even more helpful than ratings in deciding whether to read something.
Some tags will tell you about the relationships that will be included in the story. These can be really important in helping you to make wise decisions. Tags that say “/” (e.g. Adam/Eve) tell you that the story features those characters (in this example Adam and Eve) in a romantic or sexual relationship. Other tags tell you about the type of romantic or sexual relationship(s) that are included. “Het” means the story includes a relationship between a man and a woman, “slash” means a relationship between two men (occasionally used for two women), and “femslash” or “femmeslash” means a relationship between two women (the more usual tag). You need to be very careful when you see these tags.
“Gen” is a good tag to look for. This means that the story isn’t about characters having romantic or sexual relationships. Remember to be careful, people sometimes use the wrong tags, but this one is usually ok.
Some other tags to be aware of are those used by writers to let you know that this story will definitely contain descriptions of people having sex. Any story with one of these tags is something to avoid: PWP, kink, BDSM, NSFW (this last one might be used for something with lots of violence, rather than sex, but either way it’s not a good thing to look at). It’s important to be aware of these tags because sometimes an author will think “I don’t need to tell people it’s NC-17, because I tagged it “PWP” so everyone will know it’s all about sex!”
I’m telling you about this, not because I want to make you nervous, but to help you to make wise decisions. There can be fun and good things about using the internet and being part of fandoms, but there can also be dangerous things. Once you have read a story or looked at a picture, you can’t undo that, so I want to help you to say “no” when you need to.
However, I also want to make sure that you remember that if you do click on a link and you look at something that Jesus wouldn’t like, but then you are sorry and say that to him, he will always forgive you. And once you have said “sorry” to him you don’t need to feel ashamed about it anymore. I also want you to remember that you can always talk to your Mum or Dad about these things – about things you have seen that worried or upset you, or about when you’re finding it hard to resist the temptation to click on that link. They want to help you to use the internet in a way that is safe, and fun, and lets you enjoy your favourite things.