Faith Matters

Keeping our children safe in cyberspace

Technology is transforming how our children play, communicate and interact with the world. Adults have a duty to keep them safe, says Barbara McDermott

Facebook is the world's dominant social media platform. But do you know what your children are doing on it?
Barbara McDermott

MAKE no mistake about it: online child abuse involves real children, in real time, in the real world.

And tragically it is a thriving, dark, and exploitative form of criminal commerce.

This blight in the world of today was the subject of the World Congress, Child Dignity in the Digital World, hosted by the Gregorian University, Rome in early October.

The event gathered 150 delegates from around the world including China, Russia, USA, Saudi Arabia, England, Ireland and South Africa.

Among them were heads of state and specialists in fields as diverse as IT, technology research, neurosciences and neurosurgery, psychiatry, psychology, media, theology, social work, sociology and criminology. There were also experts in international governance from the United Nations, EU and Council of Europe.

Specialist presentations outlined the growth and potential of IT and the internet with some 3.2 billion internet users worldwide, of whom some 800 million are adolescents and children.

This new world of cyberspace is rich in possibilities; it also abounds with hidden dangers.

And the race to develop its potential and the greed to conquer and harvest its income flows gave little, if any, care to developing a safety net to ensure that children did not become victims of its darker exploitative potential.

Fr Hans Zollner SJ, president of the Gregorian University's Centre for Child Protection, the key lead in organising the conference, explained the growing phenomenon of child trafficking online.

"So, you can buy in one part of the world images and film of the rape of young children and even of babies that is taking place in another part of the world," he said.

There is the steady growth in 'sexting', when young people take images of themselves either naked, or engaged in sexual acts, and then post them on social media.

This can lead to 'sextortion' where such images are used as a form of 'revenge' to extract money from the victims, or even to force the victim into further acts of gross indecency.

Cyberspace is rich in possibilities; it also abounds with hidden dangers. The race to develop its potential and the greed to conquer and harvest its income flows gave little care to developing a safety net to ensure that children did not become victims of its darker exploitative potential 

Whilst disturbing and shocking, such realities, which are not uncommon, expose merely the tip of this iceberg.

We often hear it said that "child protection is everyone's responsibility" and this is certainly the case when it comes to keeping children safe online, in the virtual world.

Yet no one country, no single discipline, no organisation, no government, no faith leadership can address this problem alone.

A multi-faceted, global response is needed to eradicate child sexual exploitation online.

The combined efforts of a coalition of the willing is required.

If the labyrinth of the dark web was the backdrop of the proceedings, some good news stories evidenced real efforts to tackle the issue.

Examples of such were:

  • Confirmation by experienced delegates that education programmes help raise awareness and also provide practical advice and guidance. Research indicates however that, as US expert David Fikelhor said, "we need to re-evaluate the effectiveness of these programmes" for their robustness and future sustainability.
  •  Indication that technology is moving forward rapidly in the battle to tackle online child abuse with 'photo DNA' weeding out pornographic and abusive images of minors on the internet.
  • The collaborative work of Interpol in tracking offenders and bringing those guilty to justice.
  • Social media giants Facebook and Microsoft are actively championing the need for 'digital ethics and digital civility' to be taught in schools in order to target cyber bullying, which Pope Francis described in his address to the conference as "a true form of moral and physical attack on the dignity of other young people". Foundations were laid for work and action on the global level.
  • Pope Francis lent his voice to the practical aspirations of the conference by calling on internet companies to use "a fair portion of their great profits to defend children from harm online".
  • On the final day of the conference in the presence of the 150 delegates a young girl presented Pope Francis with a 13 point manifesto calling for global action, which the Pontiff endorsed, and which are incorporated into the Declaration of Rome, since followed up by a strategic plan of action for its implementation.

The outcome and result of serious and scientific preparation on the part of the university and supported by the Vatican, this conference was a pathfinding contribution to the human wellbeing and to the global moral order.

Facebook is rolling out a new 'Messenger Kids' app - a sort of 'happy meal' gateway for younger children to engage with social media

It was a concrete act of service by the Church through its universal outreach to society and to the human family.

For local life and initiatives in growing a culture of safeguarding in the diocese of Down and Connor and in our society at large, a few messages rang loud and clear to me as diocesan director of safeguarding:

  • Build on our existing work in this arena and consider how the outcomes of this conference can be used to improve and enhance our practice, especially by fostering alliances and partnerships with other competent actors and partners.
  • The significance and value of a number of networks and partnership arrangements engaged in by the diocese which are aimed at keeping children safe both off line and online.
  • As chair of the Inter-Faith Group of the Safeguarding Board of Northern Ireland, I was confirmed in recognising that good practice requires consolidating what we do already and in being open to new challenges and learning from others.
  • The importance of sharing my experience of the World Congress with the board members of SBNI, who already have in place an E-safety forum for raising awareness of keeping children safe online along with new multi-agency awareness training material for children and for parents.
  • The value of sharing this experience and its insights with interested groups.
  • The importance of an initiative proposed earlier in the year - 'Virtual Reality Training', involving the SBNI, the PSNI, St Mary's University College and the diocese for all trainee teachers - and currently underway.

I am convinced that our local and regional partnerships and the proven dedication of our volunteers in local communities and parishes are strong and solid foundations on which to build our indispensable contribution to the global safety of children online.

Technology is transforming our children, their world and ours, beyond all recognition.

We are all citizens of the digital age, of the fourth industrial revolution.

When it comes to keeping our 'most precious goods' safe, they themselves - the next generation grown to full consciousness - will ask us: "Did you really do enough?"

Barbara McDermott is director of safeguarding in the Diocese of Down and Connor

Most young people access Facebook and other social media networks on their smartphones

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