Encouraging and protecting online users in a brave, new, digital world

Encouraging and protecting online users in a brave, new, digital world Archbishop Eamon Martin has the attention of the panel and attendees at the conference. Photos: Chai Brady

The key to avoid danger, and con-tinue on a path of responsible and positive internet use is education, both of young people and adults, as Irish law can’t keep up with the speed of developing technologies according to the Archbishop of Armagh.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic at the Believers in the Digital World: Opportunities for Mission seminar held in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth to mark World Communications Day 2019, Archbishop Eamon Martin said that although legislation is needed, personal responsibility is “key”.

He said: “I suppose having spoken to a lot of parents who are concerned that they simply don’t know enough about the digital world, they don’t know the sites, they think children are maybe on one site but they’re on another one – young people are way ahead of the rest of us.

“The key to me is to educate young people, and indeed to educate parents. First of all, to educate young people to be safe and responsible themselves online: we know this with regard to so many other issues in the real world.”

Group discussions

About 50 people attended the interactive seminar on the digital world, which included talks from experts, group discussions and a Q&A. Archbishop Martin praised the fact people were coming together to share their “understanding through experience” and that this can help those looking to comprehend how youth are using the online world.

At the Synod on youth, the faith and vocational discernment in the Vatican, which was held last October, Archbishop Martin said young people said they were not looking to be scolded about social media or online use.

“They don’t want to be criticised, but they’re willing to evaluate and interrogate the way they’re behaving online and I think that’s really the key to this,” he said.

It was highlighted throughout the seminar the need for open dialogue about how both young people and everyone uses the internet.

Just because your son or daughter is upstairs in their room doesn’t mean they’re safe, conversations must be had about their internet use, according to a Garda expert.

Speaking after the seminar to this paper, Detective Sergeant Mary McCormack, who works in the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Unit of An Garda Síochana, said parents need to know how children are using the internet. Her talk was based on the extent of the challenge to society of online abuse and how to respond.

She said: “Unfortunately some families never know this is happening in their houses and we have to come in and unfortunately give them the bad news and try and help to assist them if they’re the house where a victim is. And if they’re the family of a perpetrator that they get some assistance around why someone in their house would have done something like this.”


Det. Sgt McCormack mentioned the One in Four programme for individuals who exhibit sexually harmful behaviour towards children, who say: “While the state provides treatment programmes for convicted sex offenders both in prison and on release, there is a lack of services for non-convicted sex-offenders in the community”. They offer structured interventions that are mostly in a group setting.

While praising the Church for interacting with An Garda and promoting the need to protect and inform children online, she added because people they work with may have never known what was happening to their child: “That is why we push for families having conversations, it’s not good enough just to say they’re upstairs, they’re in their room, they’re on the internet: they’re happy.

“You don’t know that. Interact with your children, know who they’re talking to, why they’re online this hour of the night, do they really need to be on, and they’re all questions that you need. There is loads of information on websites all over the internet about how to get involved with your children.”

She advised people to get involved with Safer Internet Day (SID), the Safer Internet Ireland Awareness Centre and to report suspicious activity to www.hotline.ie.

Darren Butler of the Bishops’ Pastoral Response to Substance Misuse spoke about the role of parishes in addressing internet addiction.

Although Mr Butler has generally been dealing with substance misuse relating to tobacco, alcohol and illegal substances, internet addiction has continuously been coming to the forefront of discussion. He said that it’s a “major issue in our parishes” and that he works with diocese, parishes, universities and more regarding targeting addiction.

During the seminar he spoke of online gaming and the fact many young people use it “as an escape”, saying there’s a need to look at why young people are becoming addicted to games and social media.

This comes as the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognised ‘gaming disorder’ as a behavioural disorder last week. WHO say: “Gaming disorder is defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a pattern of gaming behaviour (‘digital-gaming’ or ‘video-gaming’) characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

Social media

Mr Butler added that social media can be accessed easily by people at all ages who can easily lie about their age. For example, both Twitter and Facebook mandate that their users must be at least aged 13, but it’s far too easy to make an account and be dishonest about age.

He added that internet addiction “is real, it’s happening certainly in our families”.

“Between social media and with young people looking for likes; we all like to be told we look well, and if some young person who has very low self-esteem – which is something around the internet safety programme that we look at – and you put up a photograph that you can photoshop and make yourself look whatever way you want and 100 people like it, it makes you feel good, but it’s not the real world we’re in.”

Social media use can lead to extremes, with Archbishop Eamon speaking of the ‘Me’ or ‘selfie’ generation who need instant gratification and are “nurtured by the narcissism and voyeurism of social networking”.

This can be seen in young people who constantly check their smartphones for “likes and friends, obsessing for hours over their profile picture”.

There is also “the macabre filming and instant sharing of tragic incidents like road accidents or the aftermath of terrorist attacks”.

“What can believers say into this space?  How might we understand more fully the driving forces within cyberspace and witness by our example to a Christian, healthy and wholesome presence online?” he asked.

Archbishop Martin points to Pope Francis who refers to the danger of creating “closed circuits” in which people who think alike encourage their own beliefs by never leaving their own bubble of thought.

Quoting the Pope, Archbishop Martin said this makes them easily manipulatable by powerful outside interests which can “facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate”.

“He cautions on the other hand against the isolation and loneliness which can pervade our internet use, and ‘the dangerous phenomenon of young people becoming social hermits who risk alienating themselves completely from society’. How can Christians build bridges across the divides online, be reconcilers, peacemakers, comforters, instilling hope, love, faith?

“I suggest that Church and society has much to evaluate and reflect on in these areas. However, the sheer exponential speed of development of the World Wide Web, the immensity of questions raised about our identity and relationships and belonging, not to mention the huge ethical and moral questions it poses, can sometimes frighten us from even going there.”

Chairperson of the event, Senator Joan Freeman, who is behind the Children’s Digital Protection Bill 2018 brought to the Dáil in December last year told The Irish Catholic: “We are without a doubt going to face so many barriers. We’re going to get push-back all the time. To be honest I couldn’t care less.”

Her proposed bill, which is still at the early stages, “targets” and would put a lot of responsibility on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block content.

Senator Freeman said it would give legislative power to “take down sites that are going to harm our children, this is not about freedom of information or freedom of anything, it’s about safeguarding children and we’re talking about sites which are promoting suicide, promoting self-harm, food deprivation”.

She added there are step by step guides on websites on how to “kill yourself” and these must be blocked by the ISPs and “if they don’t, they’re fined, if they still don’t, it’s a crime”.

Although the internet can be positive, and used as a tool for furthering knowledge and spreading information at a rate faster than any other medium thus far, people must know the dangers. Whether you are a parent, someone monitoring a social media page, or a young person who is taking full advantage of what the internet has to offer, there are dangers that must be known and advantages that can’t be underestimated.

Archbishop Eamon Martin offers ten principles to guide believers on the “digital highways”:

  1. Be positive, communicating the ‘joy of the Gospel’.
  2. Strictly avoid aggression and ‘preachiness’ online; try not to be judgemental or polemical.
  3. Never bear false witness on the internet.
  4. Fill the internet with charity and love, continually seeking to include a sense of charity and solidarity with the suffering in the world.
  5. Have a ‘broad back’ when criticisms and insults are made – when possible, gently correct.
  6. Pray in the digital world! Establish sacred spaces, opportunities for stillness, reflection and meditation online.
  7. Establish connections, relationships and build communion, including an ecumenical presence online.
  8. Educate young people to keep themselves safe and responsible online, particularly in light of cyberbullying and the prevalence and accessibility of pornography and online gambling.
  9. “Give a soul to the internet”, as Pope Benedict XVI once said – at all times witness to human dignity online.
  10. Be missionary, remembering that, with the help of the internet, a message has the potential to reach the ends of the earth in seconds.