Digital world

Abuse on minors. Joanna Shields: let me explain why your children are afraid to speak about the Web

A growing gap separates adults and youths. On the one side, parents and teachers ignore the vast meanders of the Internet, on the other, while youths use it constantly, they don’t tell anyone what they live and experience online because they are ashamed or because they fear they won’t be understood. Interview with Baroness Joanna Shields, UK Minister for Internet Safety and Security, founder of “WEprotect”

The real problem is that the world of adults fails to realize the amount of time that youths spend surfing the digital world, or what they do once they cross its threshold. And most of all, they are unaware of the contents, images and proposals their children are exposed to. There is a gap of know-how, experience and use of this digital tool that is growing wider at the wrong moment, since now more than ever youths needs the help and the support of adults. Baroness Joanna Schields has dedicated her life to exploring this world and concern herself with it, both in her capacities as UK Minister for Internet Safety and by founding, in 2014, WePROTECT, which has become one of the major action platforms against all forms of online exploitation and abuse. In cooperation with the Centre for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University she promoted the first global Conference on “The protection of minors in the digital world” (Rome, October 3-6) that brought together world experts in this field: doctors, psychologists, new technology specialists, as well as government and religious representatives.

What worries you the most? The most important thing that emerged in this Congress is the impact of the digital world on children’s life and growth. In the case of extreme pornography we saw that being exposed to such extreme images online seriously impacts the idea of sexuality that youths are developing. Some experts have shown us that the brain of adolescents is not yet fully developed. It is evolving to reach the stage of complex thinking but it is still a stage of growth, perhaps the most important and decisive stage for their future. Exposing them to images of extreme violence, to pornography and to radical ideas, although reactions may differ, means stimulating them to process realities that are bound to have a determining impact in emotional and physiological terms.

Is the world of adults aware of this? Every innovation entails novelties, evolutions and consequences on people’s lives that will be studied and analysed only at a later stage. For sure, today’s children’s ability to interact with the new technological tools is far more developed than that of their parents and teachers. The gap separating the realm of adults from that of our children is growing wider at the worst possible time. In fact, this is a time when our children need our support, and most of us lack the knowledge and the know-how, as well as the means to support them.

We have no idea of what children are exposed to once they cross the threshold of the Internet, and owing to this lack of knowledge, children are afraid to speak about it with their parents.

They are also afraid to speak about it with their teachers, perhaps because they are ashamed, they don’t want to be judged, they know that what they did and saw is wrong, so ultimately they open up with no one.

What are the solutions? I am a member of the British Government as Minister for Internet Safety and Security. People often ask us: what are you going to do about this? Modern information technologies represent a gateway into a world without borders. For this reason

No government can plan the regulation – hence the control – of what is happening in cyberspace.

We need a coordinated approach for a global action geared at the protection of minors online, with the participation of governments, enterprises, NGOs, and civil society. This was precisely the intention of this Congress: to bring together all those involved highlighting the challenges and seeking the solutions.

You took part in this Congress also in your capacities are representative of the British government. What is your opinion of this initiative promoted and co-organized with the Catholic Church? I consider it a beautiful thing. The Church is saying: “We too have a role to play and we want to be a part of this project, we want to be a part of the solution.”

As you know there have been serious cases of sexual abuse inside the Church. 
 I am aware of it. However, I think that the Church’s commitment in this area, the fact of feeling so deeply involved, form part of her healing process. It’s important that the Church today feels and lives this commitment for children’s protection and safety, as a commitment and a responsibility for the future.

It’s the sign of a Church that is not withdrawn in a distant past but that is open to build a new future.

What do you think of the role of Pope Francis? 
The Pope is very deeply committed in the digital world. He also makes an intelligent use of it, for example by using Twitter to spread his message, but he is also aware of children’s needs in the digital environment. He has addressed the issue of the new technologies on many occasions, always highlighting the potential benefits and asking that they be ever more inclusive, so that everyone may be able to access the opportunities they offer.

But while on the one side new technologies enable access to extraordinary opportunities, on the other they ought to ensure everyone’s safety.

That is why we are here. To combine these two aspects: the promotion of new technologies and the protection of youths, so that wellbeing and security may be at the centre of the digital revolution.