‘We have to keep our eyes open, and not hide from an unpleasant truth that we would rather not see,’ Pope Francis told the World Congress on Child Dignity in a Digital World earlier this month.
The Pope was addressing delegates – both secular and religious – who gathered in the Vatican to explore the pernicious damage caused to children by misuse of digital technology. Pornography, graphic violence and online bullying are some of the risks facing children in the dark spaces of the internet, with potentially devastating impacts on their mental health.
‘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,’ the Pontiff explained.
Pope Francis called for an international, cross-disciplinary approach to protect children from the dark net and the ‘corruption of their minds and violence against their bodies’. He called, in particular, for the improvement of technological filters to prevent young people from accessing online pornography.
The Pope’s commitment to protecting children on the internet is a watershed moment in the global fight to end child abuse. World Vision has recently launched its own campaign to end violence against children, called ‘It Takes A World’. As a child focused, Christian organisation, we are a key connector with other church bodies working to protect children, like the Center for Child Protection at Gregorian University in Rome.
Violence affects 1.7 billion children every year, in every country and every community. Thankfully, it’s clear that Pope Francis believes it takes all of us working together to help ensure all children are raised to live a life in all its fullness, which God desires for them.
I was deeply moved by the Pope’s bold, brave and timely call at the Congress. And when he greeted me, I was humbled by his commitment to protect children, his simplicity and humility.
The scale of the challenge we face is daunting. It will take all of us joining our hearts, minds and souls as one to end it. The Child Dignity in a Digital World conference drew leading researchers in public health, NGOs, Interpol, the UN, government representatives as well as executives from tech giants. I met representatives from Microsoft, churches, other faiths, governments of Germany and Canada and the University of Hamburg all determined to work together. This groundbreaking summit has generated a powerful and inspiring sense of unity.
The issues are complex. For example, to what extent has online technology has outpaced internet freedom policies, giving rise to criminal activity that leads to abuse of minors on the net? We all seem to be playing ‘catch-up’ as the web and technological innovations develop at supersonic speeds.
World Vision is working in many places to foster safe environments for children, online, at home and in the classroom. In South Sudan, for example we run a child rights club, where primary school children learn about bullies and what to do. We help teach the children to treat each other with a spirit of love.
One young person, 16-year old Muiireann Carroll from Ireland, told the Congress: ‘In this era of the internet, the world faces unprecedented challenges if it is to preserve the rights and dignity of children and protect them from abuse and exploitation. This 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 mobilise action.’
The Congress has drawn up a 13-point call for action. That action plan must now be implemented without delay.