However, while admirable these rapid advancements also bring a certain concern and apprehension with them, he said, explaining that questions naturally arise as to whether “we are capable of guiding the processes we ourselves have set in motion, whether they might be escaping our grasp, and whether we are doing enough to keep them in check.”
As representatives of various fields in digital communications and organizations, conference participants “with great foresight” have put a spotlight on “what is probably the most crucial challenge for the future of the human family: the protection of young people’s dignity.”
Citing various statistics, the Pope noted that currently more than a quarter of the over 3 billion internet users are minors, meaning there are more than 800 million young people navigating the internet throughout the world. In India alone, he said, more than 500 million people will have access to the internet in the coming years, and that half of them 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?” he asked, stressing that when it comes to protecting them, “we have to keep our eyes open and not hide from an unpleasant truth that we would rather not see.”
“For that matter, surely we have realized sufficiently in recent years that concealing the reality of sexual abuse is a grave error and the source of many other evils,” he said, and urged people to “face reality” in this regard.
On this point, he referred to the “extremely troubling” yet increasingly frequent diffusion of problematic activities for youth, such as the spread of extreme pornography online; “sexting” on social media; online bullying; the “sextortion” of young people on the internet; human trafficking and prostitution, as well as a rise in the commissioning of live viewings of rape and violence against minors in other parts of the world.
He also referred to what has been described as the “dark net,” in which traffickers and pedophiles use secure and anonymous channels to exchange photos and information about minors, as well as for human and drug trafficking.
These are the places “where evil finds ever new, effective and pervasive ways to act and to expand,” the Pope said, explaining that the spread of printed pornography in the past “was a relatively small phenomenon compared to the proliferation of pornography on the net.”
And unfortunately, many people are still bewildered by the fact that these things happen, he said, noting that what makes the internet so distinct “is precisely that it is worldwide.”
“It covers the planet, breaking down every barrier, becoming ever more pervasive, reaching everywhere and to every kind of user, including children, due to mobile devices that are becoming smaller and easier to use,” he said.
As a result, no one in the world today, no single nation or authority, “feels capable of monitoring and adequately controlling the extent and the growth of these phenomena,” since many are themselves linked to other serious problems involving the internet such human and drug trafficking, financial crimes and international terrorism.
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From an educational standpoint, the Church is also surprised, he said, because the speed of online growth “has left the older generation on the sidelines, rendering extremely difficult, if not impossible, intergenerational dialogue and a serene transmission of rules and wisdom acquired by years of life and experience.”
However, he told the that despite the ominous and widespread nature of the threats, “we must not let ourselves be overcome by fear,” nor allow ourselves “be paralyzed” by a sense of powerlessness.
Instead, a global network must be formed to “limit and direct technology,” putting it at the service of a true human and integral progress.
In this regard, he cautioned attendees not to “underestimate” the harm done to minors by various forms of online abuse and exploitation. “These problems will surely have a serious and life-long effect on today’s children,” has has been proven many times over by fields such as neurobiology, psychology and psychiatry.
And while these crimes are especially problematic for minors, the Pope said it's also necessary to recognize the harm done to adults, including addictions, distorted views of love and various other disorders.
“We would be seriously deluding ourselves,” he said, “were we to think that a society where an abnormal consumption of internet sex is rampant among adults could be capable of effectively protecting minors.”