By Peter Finney Jr.
Sister of Mount Carmel Mary Ellen Wheelahan, the safe environment coordinator of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, has spent years studying online perils that can harm children.
One of the online resources she discovered recently was provided by the World Congress on Child Dignity in the Digital World in Rome – https://childdignity2017.org. Baroness Joanna Shields, a Pennsylvania native who became an influential member of British government’s initiative, spoke on the topic of “Internet Crime and Harms.”
Sister Mary Ellen said Shields spoke movingly about internet safety for children, reminding the audience how the digital world “has fundamentally transformed childhood in just one generation.”
Youth are unprepared
“She cautioned us about the readiness of young people to understand the responsibilities of their actions and to understand the realities of what they are exposed to on the internet,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “Children are exposed to pornography and to people who are looking to groom children through the internet.”
Sister Mary Ellen said the reality is that once children view pornographic images, they cannot “unsee” them.
“These images, videos and interactions with persons potentially wishing to groom children forces children to use loveless interactions and both physical and verbal abuse as their reference points for human life and dignity,” Sister Mary Ellen said.
It is critically important for parents to “continuously speak to children” about letting trusted adults know immediately if they encounter “conversations, interactions and images, when they involve lack of respect for their bodies or the bodies of other people.”
“It’s also important for parents to check devices carefully if they are used by minors and to keep the electronic devices out of their bedrooms,” Sister Mary Ellen said.
Sister Mary Ellen said parents may find useful information on internet safety from the following sites:
- Child Dignity in the Digital World: https://www.childdignity2017.org/
- Catholic Mutual, http://cmgparent.org/
- Faith and Safety – Technology Safety Through the Eyes of Faith: https://www.faithandsafety.org/
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, http://www.missingkids.com/
- NetSmartz, https://www.netsmartz.org/Parents
- Covenant Eyes, http://www.covenanteyes.com/
- Barna Group, Porn Phenomenon, https://www.barna.com/research/porn-in-the-digital-age-new-research-reveals-10-trends/
- FBI Resources, https://www.fbi.gov/resources/parents
- Homeland Security Resources, https://www.dhs.gov/publication/stopthinkconnect-parent-and-educator-resources
Sister Mary Ellen said it also is important for the archdiocese to be intentional in educating parents about the dangers of persons involved in human trafficking gaining around-the-clock access to minors through the internet. Information on human trafficking is available at http://www.missingkids.com/
Sister Mary Ellen offered a few tips for parents who want to protect their children from the dark side of the internet.
- What are the most important actions parents can take to protect their children from the onslaught of internet pornography? Children need to know they are loved and respected. Check devices frequently and thoroughly, and don’t be embarrassed to ask your school or parish for help.
- Is it realistic to assume children will never be exposed to pornography?
It is not realistic to assume children will never be exposed to pornography. As long as they have electronic devices, they have 24-hour access, and potential perpetrators have 24-hour access to them. Also, children are naturally curious, and when they stumble upon pornography, they may not have the ability to turn away from it.
- What if the child is more adept than the parent at using technology? Are there tutorials or other information available for parents?
There are resources through Faith and Safety – Technology Safety Through the Eyes of Faith, https://www.faithandsafety.org,, NetSmartz, https://www.netsmartz.org/Parents, and your service provider to guide parents through apps, videos, articles, etc.
- How effective is filtering software to block inappropriate material from reaching kids?
Filtering software is only as good as those who utilize it. Even if filtering software is used, parents should check their children’s devices for hidden apps, games, conversations, etc. Children search the internet to find ways of getting around the installed software. I have heard of cases where they have been successful in getting around the software, and it was discovered because of the parents’ vigilance in checking devices regularly.
- How much does that software cost?
- Is there a recommended age for a child to have a cell phone?
Some children do have cell phones that do not connect to the internet. They are simply used to contact parents and other trusted adults. They are a security for parents and children as they move from home to school or other activities. At any age, we need to ask why we give a child an electronic device that connects them to the internet. I believe it is up to the parents to make the decision about the appropriate age for a child to have an electronic device. Just remember when the child is given the device, the parents must be prepared to monitor it consistently. Parents should check the data usage on all devices on their plan and turn off data usage at a certain time each night.
- What time limitations should be placed on the use of cell phones by children? Should that be adjusted according to the child’s age?
Certainly, time limitations vary according to the child’s age in relation to eye safety, posture and exercise. Most importantly, we want to set time limitations on the use of electronic devices to encourage children to interact with people on a personal basis rather than through social media. Teaching children to communicate face-to-face is so much more respectful of the person with whom they are communicating.
- As someone who has examined this issue closely, what are your biggest fears about the next five to 10 years?
If we don’t address immediate issues today, I don’t even want to imagine what we will be addressing in the future. The internet is constantly changing, and we have to keep up with it daily. The most immediate issue to continue addressing is respect for life. We want to continue teaching adults and children that when we communicate, we are communicating with people who are created by God and loved by God. The forms of communication are not as important as the love expressed in communication.
- How can churches and schools help parents protect their children?
Our safe environment program will begin offering an online training for renewal training in the near future. One of the courses we will offer is internet safety. I encourage all parents to get involved with their parish’s Respect Life programs as they offer training sessions on human trafficking. Archbishop Gregory Aymond has an initiative currently to address the issues of pornography in our communities – Create a Clean Heart (CCH). Look for information in the Clarion Herald from the Create a Clean Heart Committee task force, and participate in the coming talks across the archdiocese.
For more information, contact Sister of Mount Carmel Mary Ellen Wheelahan, safe environment coordinator, at 861-6278 or email her at email@example.com.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org