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Pope to Internet Reps: Protect Children from Exploitation

While speaking at the World Congress on Child Dignity in the Digital World in Rome last Friday, Pope Francis implored participants to do more to protect children from sexual exploitation on the Internet.

According to Vatican Radio, the event was hosted by the Pontifical Gregorian University and its Centre for Child Protection and consisted of a four-day conference that brought together different government and police representatives, software companies, religious leaders and medical experts who specialize in the impact of on-line abuse.

Speaking to participants which included representatives from Facebook and Microsoft, he said social media businesses had to do more than set up filters and algorithms to block harmful content.

“We know 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?” the Pope asked.

“We have to keep our eyes open and not hide from an unpleasant truth that we would rather not see. . . . 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 sexting between 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,” he continued, “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.”

While thanking them for what they have done to date to address these problems, he warned them against using several mistaken approaches when dealing with these issues.

“The first is to underestimate the harm done to minors by these phenomena. The difficulty of countering them can lead us to be tempted to say: ‘Really, the situation is not so bad as all that…’”

Instead, they must realize that neurobiology, psychology and psychiatry have all brought to light the profound impact of violent and sexual images on the impressionable minds of children as well as the psychological problems that emerge as they grow older, the dependent behaviors and situations, and genuine enslavement that result from a steady diet of provocative or violent images.

“These problems will surely have a serious and life-long effect on today’s children,” he said.

The second mistaken approach was to think that devising more sophisticated filters and ever more refined algorithms in order to identify and block these harmful materials are sufficient.

“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.”

Third, they must not fall for the mistaken belief that the Net is a realm of unlimited freedom.

“The net has opened a vast new forum for free expression and the exchange of ideas and information,” he acknowledged. “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.”

He ended his address by relating his experiences with youth in the many different countries that he visits where he has had the opportunity to gaze into the eyes of children who are rich and poor, healthy and ill, joyful and suffering.

“To see children looking us in the eye is an experience we have all had. It touches our hearts and requires us to examine our consciences. What are we doing to ensure that those children can continue smiling at us, with clear eyes and faces filled with trust and hope? What are we doing to make sure that they are not robbed of this light, to ensure that those eyes will not be not darkened and corrupted by what they will find on the internet, which will soon be so integral and important a part of their daily lives?”

He concluded: “Let us work together, then, so that we will always have the right, the courage and the joy to be able to look into the eyes of the children of our world."

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