Pope Francis on Thursday addressed participants in an international congress in the Vatican on the theme, “Promoting Digital Child Dignity From Concept to Action, From 2017 to 2019”.

Pope Francis on Thursday called on experts in science and technology, the media, businesses, legislators, parents, religious leaders and others to join hands to take concrete and urgent action to protect children from criminal violence and harm in the digital world.

 “We must ban from the face of the earth violence and every form of abuse against children,” the Pope told some 80 participants in the November 14-15 congress that is being jointly hosted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Child Dignity Alliance and the United Arab Emirates Government.

“Let us look into their eyes: they are your sons and daughters; we must love them as God’s masterpieces and children,” the Pope told them, adding, “they have the right to a good life”.  “We have the duty to do everything possible to ensure that right.”

Among those attending the 2-day meeting are important religious leaders from different communities, experts, academics, policymakers, and technology industry leaders.

Blessing and bane of info technology

The pope expressed appreciation for the great opportunities that the astonishing development of technology in the information and communications media offers children, especially those in poverty and distant from urban centres.

However, the challenge is to “ensure that minors have safe access to these technologies so that “their healthy and serene development” is ensured and they are protected from “unacceptable criminal violence or grave harm to the integrity of their body and spirit”.

Tragically, the Pope noted, the use of digital technology to organize, commission and engage in child abuse at a distance, is outstripping the efforts and resources to combat such abuse.

“The spread of images of abuse or the exploitation of minors is increasing exponentially, involving ever more serious and violent forms of abuse and ever younger children.” The pope blamed the dramatic growth of pornography in the digital world on the general loss of the sense of human dignity, which, he said, is frequently linked to human trafficking. 

What is even more disturbing, the Pope said, is the fact that pornography is widely accessible to minors in the digital media, leading them to grave addiction, violent behaviour and troubled emotional and sexual relationships.

Concrete and urgent action

Drawing attention to the theme of their congress, “From Concept to Action”, Pope Francis said, “it is not enough to understand; we must act”.  The moral condemnation of the harm inflicted on minors needs urgently to be translated into concrete initiatives.  “The longer we wait,” he warned, “the more entrenched and insurmountable this evil becomes.” 

Balance between free expression and good of society

In this regard, he called for a fitting balance between the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and the interests of society, so as to ensure that digital media are not used to perpetrate criminal activities against minors. 

He lamented that for the sake of advancing the development of the internet and its many benefits, companies that provide services have long considered themselves mere suppliers of technological platforms, neither legally nor morally responsible for the way they are used. 

Despite the enormous potential of digital technology, the Pope said, the negative impact of its abuse in the area of human trafficking, the planning of terrorist activities, the spread of hatred and extremism, the manipulation of information and in the area child abuse, is equally significant.  

The Pope called for appropriate legislative and executive measures to counter criminal activities that harm the life and dignity of minors.

Corporate responsibility

He also appealed to large digital technology companies “to assume their responsibility towards minors, their integrity and their future.”

One way of ensuring this is for internet service providers to prevent minors from accessing pornographic sites by verifying their age. In this regard, the Pope expressed alarm at studies showing the average age of first access to pornography is currently eleven and tends to keep lowering, which, he said, “is in no way acceptable”.

While encouraging the industry to cooperate with parents in their educational responsibilities, the Holy Father also urged computer engineers to use artificial intelligence technologies to identify and eliminate illegal and harmful images from online circulation and help develop and create a new ethics for our time.