By Cian Molloy - 08 October, 2017
Global society is failing its children because it is failing to protect them from online abuse and exposure to harmful material, according to the first World Congress on Child Dignity in the Digital World, which was held in Rome last week.
The four-day congress, hosted by the Pontifical Gregorian University and its Centre for Child Protection, brought together experts in childcare, internet security, law enforcement, education and other specialisms to address the issue of child protection on the internet and in online media.
Claimed to be the first gathering of its kind, the congress was organised by the UK-based organisation WePROTECT and by Telefono Azzuro, an Italian helpline for children. There were 140 delegates present from across the world, including some from countries where Catholicism is not a dominant force, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.
At an audience in the Clementine Hall of the Pope’s Apostolic Palace, the conclusions of the congress, ‘The Rome Declaration’, were presented to His Holiness by a young girl representing thousands of millions of young people around the globe.
The declaration recognises the potential for good in the electronic media, but it also notes its potential for harm. It says: “While undoubtedly the internet creates numerous benefits and opportunities in terms of social inclusion and educational attainment, today, content that is increasingly extreme and dehumanising is available literally at children’s fingertips.
“The proliferation of social media means insidious acts, such as cyberbullying, harassment and sextortion, are becoming commonplace. Specifically, the range and scope of child sexual abuse and exploitation online is shocking. Vast numbers of sexual abuse images of children and youth are available online and continue to grow unabated.
“The detrimental impact of pornography on the malleable minds of young children is another significant online harm. We embrace the vision of an internet accessible by all people. However, we believe the constitution of this vision must recognise the unwavering value of protecting all children.
“The challenges are enormous, but our response must not be gloom and dismay. 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.”
The declaration acknowledges that IT companies and governments have been proactive in combating ‘web nasties’, but it urges them to continue to be innovative. It notes that the UN is leading a global effort to achieve a sustainable development goal to eradicate violence against children by 2030. However, the document says: “We must also awaken families, neighbours, communities around the world and children themselves to the reality of the internet’s impact upon children.
“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 that we mobilise action from every government, every faith, every company and every institution.”