Vatican City (AsiaNews) - The digital world has "beautiful potential", but within it are also "serious phenomena" that affect primarily children and stop what they serve, but technical solutions such as filters are not enough. Instead, there is a "mobilization" made of awareness of the severity of problems, laws, technology control, helping children and families, creativity in education, so as to develop sensitivity and moral formation of the young. The theme of the protection of young people in the digital age was addressed today by Pope Francis as he received the participants at the first "Child Dignity in the Digital World" Conference promoted and organized by the Center for Child Protection at the Gregorian Pontifical University.
With the current development of the digital world, the Pope observed, on the one hand, "we are filled with real wonder and admiration at the new and impressive horizons opening up before us, on the other, we can sense a certain concern and even apprehension when we consider how quickly this development has taken place, the new and unforeseen problems it sets before us, and the negative consequences it entails. Those consequences are seldom willed, and yet are quite real. We rightly wonder if we are capable of guiding the processes we ourselves have set in motion, whether they might be escaping our grasp, and whether we are doing enough to keep them in check ".
"We know," he said, "that minors are presently more than a quarter of the over 3 billion users of the internet; this means that over 800 million minors are navigating the internet. We know that within two years, in India alone, over 500 million persons will have access to the internet, and that half of these will be minors. What do they find on the net? And how are they regarded by those who exercise various kinds of influence over the net? We have to keep our eyes open and not hide from an unpleasant truth that we would rather not see. For that matter, surely we have realized sufficiently in recent years that concealing the reality of sexual abuse is a grave error and the source of many other evils? So let us face reality, as you have done in these days. We encounter extremely troubling things on the net, including the spread of ever more extreme pornography, since habitual use raises the threshold of stimulation; the increasing phenomenon of sextingbetween young men and women who use the social media; and the growth of online bullying, a true form of moral and physical attack on the dignity of other young people. To this can be added sextortion; the solicitation of minors for sexual purposes, now widely reported in the news; to say nothing of the grave and appalling crimes of online trafficking in persons, prostitution, and even the commissioning and live viewing of acts of rape and violence against minors in other parts of the world. The net has its dark side (the “dark net”), where evil finds ever new, effective and pervasive ways to act and to expand. The spread of printed pornography in the past was a relatively small phenomenon compared to the proliferation of pornography on the net”.
A network that is global, crosses every border and is capable of reaching anyone, including children. " As a result, today no one in the world, or any single national authority, feels capable of monitoring and adequately controlling the extent and the growth of these phenomena, themselves interconnected and linked to other grave problems associated with the net, such as illicit trafficking, economic and financial crimes, and international terrorism."
"But we must not let ourselves be overcome by fear, which is always a poor counsellor. Nor let ourselves be paralyzed by the sense of powerlessness that overwhelms us before the difficulty of the task before us. Rather, we are called to join forces, realizing that we need one another in order to seek and find the right means and approaches needed for effective responses. "
Three mistakes to avoid
In order for this mobilization to be effective, Francis indicated three mistakes to avoid:
The first is to underestimate the profound impact of violent and sexual images on the impressionable minds of children "and that produce psychological disorders," “psychological problems that emerge as they grow older, the dependent behaviours and situations, and genuine enslavement.”
“Without concealing that these images create problems even in adults. " We would be seriously deluding ourselves were we to think that a society where an abnormal consumption of internet sex is rampant among adults could be capable of effectively protecting minors”.
“The second mistaken approach would be to think that automatic technical solutions, filters devised by ever more refined algorithms in order to identify and block the spread of abusive and harmful images, are sufficient to deal with these problems. Certainly, such measures are necessary. Certainly, businesses that provide millions of people with social media and increasingly powerful, speedy and pervasive software should invest in this area a fair portion of their great profits. But there is also an urgent need, as part of the process of technological growth itself, for all those involved to acknowledge and address the ethical concerns that this growth raises, in all its breadth and its various consequences”.
“Here we find ourselves having to reckon with a third potentially mistaken approach, which consists in an ideological and mythical vision of the net as a realm of unlimited freedom. Quite rightly, your meeting includes representatives of lawmakers and law enforcement agencies whose task is to provide for and to protect the common good and the good of individual persons. The net has opened a vast new forum for free expression and the exchange of ideas and information. This is certainly beneficial, but, as we have seen, it has also offered new means for engaging in heinous illicit activities, and, in the area with which we are concerned, for the abuse of minors and offences against their dignity, for the corruption of their minds and violence against their bodies. This has nothing to do with the exercise of freedom; it has to do with crimes that need to be fought with intelligence and determination, through a broader cooperation among governments and law enforcement agencies on the global level, even as the net itself is now global”.
“These include raising awareness of the gravity of the problems, enacting suitable legislation, overseeing developments in technology, identifying victims and prosecuting those guilty of crimes. They include assisting minors who have been affected and providing for their rehabilitation, assisting educators and families, and finding creative ways of training young people in the proper use of the internet in ways healthy for themselves and for other minors. They also include fostering greater sensitivity and providing moral formation, as well as continuing scientific research in all the fields associated with this challenge”.
The Rome Declaration.
For her part, the Pope said, the Catholic Church offers "its willingness and commitment As all of us know, in recent years the Church has come to acknowledge her own failures in providing for the protection of children: extremely grave facts have come to light, for which we have to accept our responsibility before God, before the victims and before public opinion. For this very reason, as a result of these painful experiences and the skills gained in the process of conversion and purification, the Church today feels especially bound to work strenuously and with foresight for the protection of minors and their dignity, not only within her own ranks, but in society as a whole and throughout the world. She does not attempt to do this alone – for that is clearly not enough – but by offering her own effective and ready cooperation to all those individuals and groups in society that are committed to the same end. "
During the meeting Francis was given the Rome Declaration, approved during the conference. It contains an appeal "to all, to stand up to defend the dignity of children".
The text, in 13 articles, addresses " world leaders to undertake a global awareness campaign to educate and inform the people of the world about the severity and extent of the abuse and exploitation of the world’s children, and to urge them to demand action from national leaders. " Equally strong is the appeal to "leaders of the world’s great religions to inform and mobilize members of every faith to join in a global movement to protect the world’s children."
The Rome Declaration therefore called for "parliaments all over the world" to take action to improve "legislation for more effective protection of minors" and demand " eaders of technology companies to commit to the development and implementation of new tools and technologies to attack the proliferation of sex abuse images on the Internet, and to interdict the redistribution of the images of identified child victims. "