Offering the perspective on the safeguarding of minors in Africa was Cardinal John Njue, Archbishop of Nairobi, which Pope Francis visited in 2015 as part of his first tour of the African continent.
In his speech, Njue painted a general picture of a continent that in many ways is still digitally illiterate, and where issues related to sex are largely taboo, but which also falls prey to the same sorts of abuses and exploitation experienced in other parts of the world, including online.
"The digital world, being a new phenomenon, has found a gray ground of abuse in Africa, where the majority of older generations expected to protect minors are not computer literate, leaving their children exposed to cyber-abuse of all kinds," he said.
Naming just a few of the online dangers that have affected African youth, Njue cited cyber-bullying, 'sexting,' online grooming and gambling for money, as well as a number of suicides that have taken place as a result of the online "Blue Whale Challenge," in which youth are encouraged to join the game and carry out a number of different challenges, the final one being suicide.
Njue said that according to statistics from communications representatives in Kenya, mobile access among citizens increased to 88.1 percent in 2016, with 37.8 million subscribers to online mobile services.
Other gains were seen in the general internet data market, which spiked to 31.9 million people going digital. However, "telecommunications offices remain largely unregulated, and children remain vulnerable," he said.
Generally speaking, Njue said that as far as Africa goes, "safeguarding of minors has been neglected in our society."
In many ways it is a "culture of silence," he said, explaining that even for parents to bring up human sexuality with their children "is a taboo subject in most of our communities in Kenya, and Africa at large."
Needed infrastructure is also lacking in many African countries, he said, explaining that law enforcement officers "are not adequately trained and equipped" to deal with cyber-abuse, while the majority of adults "are not computer literate, and therefore are at a disadvantage in knowing what their children are doing with their computers and mobile phones."
Some have taken advantage of this lack of awareness to promote inappropriate sexual content even through cartoons, with children watching the shows in front of their parents, who are often unconcerned "out of ignorance."
Poverty, he said, is also a key cause of exploitation, and children are often left alone, as parents are frequently out of the house all day for work.
"This exposes the vulnerable children to all kinds of abuses with no one to protect them from the perpetrators," Njue said, adding that political strife on the African continent such as the conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic compound the problem, leaving women and children "in danger of all forms of abuse."
There is also a lack of advocacy and a lack of funds for awareness-raising, he said, because many people are afraid to speak out in a society "which views issues of sexual abuse as taboo, not to be discussed in the open."
As far as what can be done, Njue echoed Pope Francis' frequent call for greater training of Church personnel and the enactment of laws "to ensure that these sins have no place in their Church. This is why we are here."
Laws ought to be more stringent, he said, and the faithful, particularly in schools and educational institutes, must also be educated on the dangers involved in internet activities to so that children do not fall victim to abuse or bullying online.
When in 2011 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith requested that all bishops' conferences issue guidelines for safeguarding minors, Kenya responded by issuing a document titled "Safeguarding children, policies and procedures," Njue said.
However, he said that due to "a lack of data and expertise," the Kenyan bishops' conference, as well as others in Africa, "are not able to do much in safeguarding children from cyber-bullying. This is where the conference needs help."
In terms of action points that could be implemented, Njue said governments must set up a "singular body" that monitors the internet, as was done in the UK, and which takes down websites found to publish and disseminate child pornography.
Parents must also be more pro-active in monitoring what their children do online, he said. And laws must be implemented to handle cases where the child is both the "victim and the perpetrator of cyber-crime" by 'sexting' lewd images of themselves on apps like WhatsApp or Snapchat, he said, and again pointed to models already existing in the UK.
Elders, chiefs and local administration in various villages also ought to be informed of digital risks, and educational institutions ought to push media channels to ensure that television companies are offering appropriate content at times when families might be watching, he said.
As far as the Church goes, Njue said she must first of all accompany children by giving them a solid education in Christian values, "thus empowering and creating a good foundation of morals in them."
The Church should also take advantage of the various groups, associations, movements and educational institutions she runs in order to educate children on cyber-bullying and sexual abuse to ensure their protection. Similarly, clergy and religious should also be given adequate information on risks and prevention.
Njue also called for heavy investment for counseling and rescue services for victims, and for greater cooperation with the state and with law enforcement to ensure proper training and that all cases "are followed to the end."
"The safeguarding of minors is a multi-faceted social problem that requires the synergy of all disciplines to bring about prevention," Njue said, stressing that regional and international collaboration are necessary throughout Africa "if we are to respond to the challenges of child online abuse in a digitally, culturally diverse world."
Sexual abuse is a problem "across all borders," he said. "From the poorest remote village in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to the richest countries in the developed world, there is no exclusion."
Because of this, "it is our cardinal duty and obligation to see to it that children are protected from all forms of sexual abuses, including cyber-bullying and pornographic movies, and to fully implement the laws and regulations," Njue said.
He insisted that the Church, and society as a whole, "should advertise zero-tolerance to any form of abuse of minors," and voiced his hope that the conference would "be the beginning of a new journey."
Elise Harris was senior Rome correspondent for CNA from 2012 to 2018.