Summer is now in full-swing as kids flew out the doors of their schools and straight home to their cell phones, laptops, and video games… perhaps some made it to the seaside with their families for a vacation together — although, certainly with another „member of the family“ on board: a screen.
Our youngest generation has been raised with cell phones within arms reach, often handed to them by their parents to appease them or stop a temper tantrum. This has become a go-to for parents as a tactic to keep their children calm, but the parents may not consider the risks they take by putting the worldwide web in their kids‘ hands without parental protections in place. Old iPhones become toys for kids when their parents get a phone upgrade, leaving them in full control of their own privacy and personal data.
There are many risks to putting a cell phone in a minor’s hand. To name a few:
- exposure to online bullying, pornography, predators, violent imagery
- misuse of personal data or sharing personal information on social media platforms
- addiction to the thrill of being online or on social media platforms or playing game apps
A 2017 conference hosted by the Pontifical Gregorian Univeristy’s Centre for Child Protection, together with the WePROTECT Global Alliance and the SOS Telefono Azzurro Onlus, tackled some of the biggest challenges regarding the protection of children and vulnerable adults in the digital world. Its goal remains: „To grow a global coalition of representatives from religions, governments, international organisations, the technology industry, academia and the research community, civil society and elsewhere, working together toward a common objective: defending the dignity of minors and vulnerable adults in the digital world… [and] to create a digital world where children and vulnerable adults are respected and free to exercise their digital rights and are safe from exploitation and abuse.“ This strategic plan explains clear goals that aim to protect the world’s most vulnerable from falling victim to online exploitation and abuse. Pope Francis responded quite positively to such a proposal to shore up global dialogue across religions, educational institutions, civil society, etc.
A specific life-threatening example of the dangers of the internet that plague our youth comes to mind. Recently, I translated an article produced by the Pontifical University of the Sacred Heart’s Family and Media website, which elaborated on a social media „game“ called Blue Whale Challenge. The social media game is passed from a „guide“ to a social media user, asking them to complete fifty tests, the last one calling them to commit suicide.
A loss of life at the hands of a stranger, via radio frequencies and a screen.
It seems like society underestimates the power of the internet and the rate at which evil can spread, in its innumerable forms. Bullying as well has been a major cause of teen suicide, as their most impressionable minds are open to the negative jests and ridicule of others. It seems like every-day news now, hearing of a teenager committing suicide after having been bullied on social media. So my question is, is it being discussed at the family dinner table? Or are parents assuming a thing like that would never happen to their child and hand them a cell phone without fear of the worst?
Then there is the pure addiction of having a phone, computer, or tablet in hand – „the world“ just a click away. Whether we are speaking about a teenager or a child who has access to the internet, the effect is the same: it is satisfying to have the world at one’s fingertips. Whether that means chatting on WhatsApp with friends, watching YouTube videos, or otherwise, it’s all a thrill to be „connected.“ Instead of running next door to see if the neighbor kid is home and wants to play soccer, they both log on to Minecraft instead and play in a virtual world – „together,“ without even being in the same room.
The summers of late-night soccer games with neighbors and friends, accompanied by the aroma of searing steaks and burgers are fading, as we place screens in front of our children’s faces and seek solitude – allowing them to explore the most hidden corners of the internet where violent and graphic imagery lie, bullying thrives, and the innocence of being a kid is threatened by mere strangers. Access to pornography and other sexual content is much easier than parents may think or know how to control. Youth being exposed to such content has and deep affect on their formative years regarding how they view their own sexuality. More information and studies on that here, provided by the Family and Media website.
So what are the appropriate measures parents should take to protect their children from these dangers? How should we be teaching the youngest generation what it means to use the web and social media responsibly? There must be a middle ground, and it must be found quick.
Photo courtesy of: Aleksandr Bognat | Dreamstime.com