Promoting the dignity and rights of the child in digital spaces

Promoting the dignity and rights of the child in digital spaces

Actors of many backgrounds come together united in action to promote the dignity and rights of the child in digital spaces.
Actors of many backgrounds come together united in action to promote the dignity and rights of the child in digital spaces.
Vatican City—15 November 2019

On the 30th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities, government representatives of the United Arab Emirates and the Child Dignity Alliance hosted a joint interfaith meeting about the responsibility of religious communities in the protection of children in the digital world. 

Actors of many religious backgrounds, including from the Baha’i International Community, attended this gathering, held on 14 and 15 November, which Pope Francis opened, and in which Queen Silvia of Sweden and Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior of the UAE, offered keynote remarks. 

The gathering sought to unite key multinational companies, NGOs, policy makers, faith leaders, senior representatives in the media and technology sectors, and other stakeholders in a concerted plan of action to promote the dignity and rights of the child in digital spaces.

The role of religious communities in safeguarding children’s nobility and dignity, and creating the appropriate conditions for their life-long flourishing, is immense. “Faith communities ... can play a unique role in transforming ingrained patterns of thought and behavior in a local population,” noted  Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community, in an address to the attendees. “Creating and re-creating culture in this way is one of the most powerful functions to be played by religion.” 

In his opening address, Pope Francis highlighted many of the positive possibilities of technology, including its potential to open new horizons, yet simultaneously noted many of its perils. Among these he emphasized that one of the gravest challenges to children in the world today has been the online proliferation of pornography. “The dramatic growth of pornography in the digital world is, in itself, most serious, the fruit of a general loss of the sense of human dignity; frequently it is linked to human trafficking. What makes this phenomenon even more disturbing is the fact that this material is widely accessible even to minors via the internet, especially through mobile devices. The majority of scientific studies have highlighted the profound impact of pornography on the thinking and behaviour of children. It will surely have lifelong effects on them, in the form of grave addiction, violent behaviour and deeply troubled emotional and sexual relationships.”

Pope Francis noted, as well, that these issues cannot be addressed on the basis of shallow and superficial knowledge. Addressing scientists and those in the field of technology, he said, “Laying the foundations for greater protection of the dignity of minors should be one of the most noble aims of your scientific research.”

Ms. Dugal concurred that “the proliferation of pornography, no less than the deluge of sexual imagery used to promote virtually every product and service imaginable, provide just a glimpse of the magnitude of the challenge before us.” 

Messages such as these, which glorify a self-centered approach to life, gain prominence in the current global economic order, she said. But history has shown that, at its best, religion can help orient individuals towards greater degrees of nobility, altruism and a concern that transcends self-interest. 

Ms. Dugal drew attention to the qualities religious leaders must themselves demonstrate: “Faith leaders and the communities they guide have a responsibility not only to hold themselves to a higher standard, but to strive toward a level of conduct that is exemplary in its integrity and transparency. No one country or agency can solve this problem—all stakeholders must work together earnestly for the well-being of children without consideration for their personal agendas.” 

The responsibility of religious communities goes beyond the constellation of efforts that need to be deployed to protect children and counter predatory behavior towards them. Equally important are the steps faith communities can take in assisting adults and youth to arise in service to those around them. Ms. Dugal shared that, “Societies around the world are increasingly characterized by isolation, alienation, and resentment. Growing numbers report that they lack a sense of higher purpose or meaning in life. Many have little hope that social ills and long-standing injustices can be remedied. Such sad realities do not, of course, cause child abuse or sexual exploitation in any direct sort of way. But neither are they without effect—influencing the way that all members of a community view, value, and treat one another.”  

Faith communities can help foster the spiritual, social, and mental health of a population as a whole, by inviting the informed participation of increasing numbers in a united effort to build a better model of society.

The organizers of the meeting presented to the participants an action plan that included five concrete goals: To raise awareness of digital risks and make prevention the top priority; to undertake new social research to provide better understanding of the scope and severity of child sexual abuse and exploitation online; to foster collaboration with technology companies; to mobilize the world’s great religions to launch a global movement to protect children online; to promote exchange of experiences in the provision of child rescue and treatment services; and to promote appropriate legislation and executive measures.