by Russell Pollitt SJ

“When history writes the chapter entitled ‘the digital world’, will it celebrate the immense benefits that technology has delivered and the great human progress that followed? Or will it be a requiem of regret for childhood loss? As it stands today my fear is that history will judge us harshly unless we act now,” Baroness Joanna Shields said in her opening remarks at the Child Dignity in the Digital World Congress in Rome. The Congress was hosted by the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University.

Shocking statistics of child abuse were reiterated at the Congress which brought together experts from all over the world including sociologists, psychologists, lawyers, law enforcement, neurosurgeons, software developers and activists.

The statistics in South Africa are, on average, amongst the highest in the world. The Optimus Study in South Africa, released in May 2016, shows that the sexual abuse of children and adolescents is widespread and possibly worse than previously estimated. Previous studies show that girls were always more vulnerable to abuse. Optimus shows that boys and girls are equally vulnerable to some form of sexual abuse. 35.4% of children interviewed said that they had been sexually abused at some point in their lives.

The study revealed that some 784,697 young people aged 15-17 have been sexually abused in South Africa. Optimus noted that parental abuse of alcohol or drugs doubles a child’s likelihood of being sexually abused. The risk of being sexually abused is highest between ages 14-16 and that children with a disability were 78% more likely to experience some form of sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse online is only one form of abuse. Many young people today are also bullied online. Incessant bullying has led to severe depression and suicide. Studies have revealed that two hours of screen time increases risk factors for suicide and depression. Baroness Shields pointed out that if you chart data on children’s behaviour from the 1960’s you notice something alarming: “This so-called ‘iGeneration’ is sleeping less, going out less, dating less, and postponing behaviours that for decades marked the transition to adulthood.”

She went on to say that algorithms seem to know more about us than we do about ourselves. They have calculated insights into our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and intentions. “If a young person is depressed or suicidal, then chances are the social networks or communication app they are using will have the tools to recognise this.”

Participants at the Congress also heard that youngsters were harassed and abused by their peers. Children are hurt not only by strangers “out there” but by their own friends and, often, family members. They are often coerced to produce sexually explicit pictures of themselves – not just by strangers but by peers.

Many parents did not grow up having to contend with the digital world. Often, they do not have the knowledge or the tools to help their children navigate the digital ecosystem. We now live on a world where there are no clear lines, no boundaries. We need a more concerted effort in working together to protect our children and teach them digital integrity.

Next time you see your child in front of the screen or on WhatsApp you might want to think again about their best interests and well-being.