U.S. bishops, Greek Orthodox promote Internet safety

For parents baffled by social media as their tweens and teens tweet, Instagram, update, text and Snapchat in the backseat, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched a new website emphasizing digital safety.

A partnership between the USCCB and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, FaithandSafety.org is a resource for parents to teach children how to use social media and other technology through the critical lenses of faith and prudence.

The site, which launched during Internet Safety Month, offers tips on how to promote safety at home, a guide to understanding the various devices and services out there and a blog on safety issues.

“We’re really excited about the launch of the site,” said Helen Osman, USCCB secretary of communications. “[To] frame this in the context that creation is good and can serve toward the common good — that is our intent here.”

Social interactions

Never has Christianity’s message had such potential as it does today, with international conversation a mere finger-touch away. “We are called to witness,” said Osman. “Jesus engaged with all sorts of folks. I think we should, too.”

However, social media’s immediacy and reach make it crucial for parents to be diligent about forming their children for time spent in front of a screen. Because social media is all about relationships and interaction, it can, as with any technology, “be misused,” Osman told Our Sunday Visitor.

“How do we help our children bring their Catholic values — their faith values — to the digital world?” she said. “That includes how we approach others in relationship. We’ve seen some terribly tragic results of young people sharing falsities. Inappropriate content resulting in other children committing suicide. Those are horrific misuses of this technology.”

Theo Nicolakis, chief information officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America — Faith and Safety’s co-founder — explained a particular threat to Christian charity, dubbed “cyber-disinhibition.”

“[The theory] argues we tend toward more negative forms of communication online versus face-to-face interactions,” he said. “In other words, it’s a lot easier for us to be meaner, more cruel and fundamentally un-Christian to what we may perceive as text on a computer screen as opposed to someone we encounter face-to-face. That, along with perceived online anonymity, may tend to give rise to email flame wars, bullying, especially cyber-bullying, and hostile posts in discussion forums and blogs.”

Evangelization tools

But Nicolakis stressed the importance of being realistic about living in a technology-saturated world.

“In today’s culture and in the new evangelism that technology has brought, it’s impossible to live in a cocoon,” he said. “Elementary education is integrated with technology. Gaming consoles all connect online. And can you even buy a phone that doesn’t have the ability to connect to the Internet? I think that parents feel overwhelmed.”

To assist with that, Osman said that parents should help their children practice virtue in all aspects of life.

“When we help a child understand who he is, being created in the image and likeness of God ... it’s a natural progression,” she said.

But parents’ education in online intricacies is crucial to that development.

“The pace of technological advance is faster than a family’s ability to socialize it. As a result, parents tend to let kids have free rein or they tend to shut it out,” Nicolakis said. “Technology is going to change, but the core values and attitudes that a faith-based approach can help instill in kids is the real key for helping bring up our children as strong men and women of faith in the digital age.”

Threat of pornography

Rearing strong men and women of faith can almost seem impossible in the face of the greatest technological disease of the day — pornography.

“There is absolutely nothing good about pornography,” Nicolakis said. “With pornography, there are correlations with sex trafficking, prostitution, abuse and a demeaning attitude toward women. [It] dehumanizes the human person from being created in the image and likeness of God to being a mere object.”

Studies have consistently backed up Nicolakis’ claim. One such, “Sexual Exploitation Industry: Research Findings Summaries,” compiled by Mary Anne Layden, shows connections between pornography and destructive behavior.

“Exposure to ‘massive pornography’ (4 hours and 48 minutes) leads to changes in beliefs and attitudes,” writes Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program and the Education Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania. Changing attitudes include “reduced support for the women’s liberation movement, reduced belief that pornography needs to be restricted for minors, reduced recommended jail sentences for rapists, increased callousness toward woman, and beliefs of increased frequency of pathological sex (such as sex with animals and sex with violence),” she added.

Because pornography is so addictive, the statistics accentuate the dire need to guard a child from pornography from his or her first interactions with technology.

“The most recent statistics I’ve seen point to first exposure to pornography now being as young as 6 years of age, down from 8 just a few years ago,” Nicolakis said. “Many, many families don’t understand that the music player, gaming console and cell phone that they give their kids all have the capability to connect to the Internet. Moreover, search engines by default are not set up with the most secure settings, and it’s simple for kids to disable all filtering.”

Be not afraid

A calm approach to the digital realm, aided by sites like FaithandSafety.org, can help parents get a grasp on how to help their children become healthy, whole human beings.

“I think that it is our baptismal call to be there,” said Osman. “I think this is what the Holy Father means in part by the New Evangelization.”

Think back to 2005. The death of now-Blessed John Paul II and the subsequent election of Pope Benedict XVI received coverage via the traditional news outlets: television, radio, newspapers and news websites.

Fast-forward to 2013. The real-time coverage of the papal election of Pope Francis was unprecedented. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, live-streaming video on news sites — all mediums exploded as Catholics awaited news from St. Peter’s Square.

“Now we can almost, because of social media, get Pope Francis’ homilies as soon as he is delivering them in the morning,” said Osman.

She emphasized the importance of finding the good in creation and using that good for a “half-full” mentality.

“We are called to be in communion,” she said. “That’s pretty fundamental to our understanding of how God is calling us to be.” 

Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.