Religious, secular experts unite in call to protect child safety online

By Elise Harris

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Credit: PureSolution/Shutterstock.

In a joint declaration on the need to protect youth on the internet, leaders and experts from various fields stressed the need Friday to raise awareness of digital dangers and to collaborate on child protection.

“Every child’s life is unique, meaningful and precious and every child has a right to dignity and safety,” an Oct. 6 joint declaration from participants in a Rome conference on promoting online safety for children read.

However, “today, global society is failing its children.” Instead of being protected, “millions of children are being abused and exploited in tragic and unspeakable ways, and on an unprecedented scale all over the world,” the declaration lamented.

Titled “Pope Francis – A society can be judged by the way it treats its children,” the declaration was drafted by the participants in the conference and presented to Pope Francis during their audience with him Oct. 6.

The conference, held Oct. 3-6 and dedicated to the theme “Child Dignity in the Digital World,” was the first of its kind on a global scale, drawing social scientists, civic leaders, religious leaders, and representatives from major tech companies.

It was organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University's Center for Child Protection in collaboration with the UK-based global alliance WePROTECT and the organization “Telefono Azzurro,” and addressed concerns surrounding abuse prevention, pornography, the responsibility of internet providers and the media, and ethical governance.

The declaration included 13 action points for the future directed at different sectors of society, including technology companies, law enforcement, governments, and religious leaders.

Key areas highlighted for protecting minors in the future were the fields of education and building awareness of the internet and the risks involved. Participants also advocated for more stringent laws and accountability for online crimes, training of medical and educational personnel in how to look for signs of abuse, and swifter reporting of suspected instances of abuse.

They also asked that major tech companies invest in developing new technologies aimed at protection and identification of online victims, as well as broader efforts to rescue victims and educate youth on what behaviors could put them in harm's way.

“Technology’s exponential advancement and integration into our everyday lives is not only changing what we do and how we do it, but who we are,” the declaration read.

And while many of these changes are positive, “we face the dark side of this new-found world, a world which is enabling a host of social ills that are harming the most vulnerable members of society.”

Numerous benefits have come from the internet, but alongside these have also grown content that is “increasingly extreme and dehumanizing is available literally at children’s fingertips.”

“The proliferation of social media means insidious acts, such as cyber-bullying, harassment and sextortion, are becoming commonplace,” the document read, noting that both the range and scope of online child sexual abuse and exploitation “is shocking.”

“Vast numbers of sexual abuse images of children and youth are available online and continue to grow unabated,” participants said, adding that the “detrimental impact of pornography on the malleable minds of young children” is yet another increasing and “significant online harm.”

“We embrace the vision of an internet accessible by all people. However, we believe the constitution of this vision must recognize the unwavering value of protecting all children,” the said. And while the challenges are “enormous,” the response “must not be gloom and dismay.”

Instead, “we must work together to seek positive, empowering solutions for all. We must ensure that all children have safe access to the internet to enhance their education, communications and connections.”

Technology companies and governments have shown great leadership in this fight, they said, stressing that representatives of this field “must continue to innovate to better protect children.”

Families, neighborhoods and various communities around the world must also be awakened to the issue and the reality of the impact of the internet on children, including the risks.

Emphasizing the need for collaboration, participants stressed that online abuse and exploitation “is a problem that cannot be solved by one nation or one company or one faith acting alone, it is a global problem that requires global solutions.”

“It requires that we build awareness, and that we mobilize action from every government, every faith, every company and every institution.”

The declaration concluded saying that “the world faces unprecedented challenges if it is to preserve the rights and dignity of children and protect them from abuse and exploitation.”

These challenges “require new thinking and approaches, heightened global awareness and inspired leadership,” it read, and issued a global appeal for everyone “to stand up for the protection of the dignity of children.”

In an Oct. 6 news briefing with journalists after the audience with Pope Francis closing the conference, Fr. Hans Zollner SJ, president of the CCP, said the conference was “very intense and very successful.”

“There was a unique sense of unity” among participants across the board, he said, explaining that he “felt absolutely enthused about the way people were interacting, networking and comping up with interactive proposals.”

Also present at the news briefing was Baroness Sheila Hollins, a professor and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

In her comments, she said that when historians look back at the digital age, they will most likely say it was the age that “changed the world in one generation,” and we'll be judged on “did we do enough?”

She spoke of the need to engage at various levels in order to address the problem, particularly with youth themselves, who are the “digital natives” most familiar with new forms of technology and therefore are the best interlocutors.

Another suggestion that came out of working groups was a possible encyclical on “on childhood and the social environment,” given the rapid changes society is undergoing.

Hollins also noted a proposal made by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, who during a keynote speech suggested an in-depth study be made on childhood from an anthropological, philosophical, and theological perspective, keeping in mind the different cultural perceptions of childhood, and that while some things are forbidden in some cultures, they might be acceptable in others.

Dr. Ernie Allen, Chair of the International Advisory Board for WePROTECT, said that the organization intends to get the topic of the digital world and safety concerns on the table at relevant events in the coming years, such as the 2018 Synod of Bishops on youth, the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Dublin, and the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama.

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