Address - Προσλαλιά

ADDRESS by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “Protecting Children’s Dignity in a Digital World” (Abu Dhabi, November 20, 2018)

It is an honor to address this important event organized by the Interfaith Alliance for Safer Communities with special emphasis on protecting children’s dignity in a digital world. Such inspiring and interfaith workshops may seem far removed from the tragic reality of child exploitation and abuse, yet they play a vital role in raising awareness, advancing dialogue and fostering collaboration among religions on contemporary global challenges and social injustices.
 
During the last century, humanity succeeded, in a way, in establishing childhood as a period of human life worthy of protection. Today, however, despite the fact that children are in need of their childhood, of a protected space, we tolerate the invasion of media in children’s lives. Instead of further advancing the protection of childhood, we take steps backward. Television, the internet and the constant exposure of children to the digital world lead to the so-called “disappearance of childhood,” resulting in a radical change in children’s lives, a decrease in the span of their childhood, and an early induction into adulthood together with its problems and contradictions, as well as a change in the relationship between parent and child. New technologies have weakened the role of family in the education of children; the computer has become the main source of values.
 
Without a doubt, the achievements of technology constitute a great revolution in the history of our culture. They have changed both ourselves and the world. Nevertheless, this is an ambivalent change, since technology has both a positive and a negative side. The “Declaration of Rome” (January 12, 2018) properly states: 
 
Technology’s exponential advancement and integration into our everyday lives is not changing what we do and how we do it, but who we are. Much of the impact of these changes has been very positive. However, we face the dark side of this new-found world, a world which is enabling a host of social ills that are harming the most vulnerable members of society.
 
As usual, the negative effects of technology harm primarily the most vulnerable members of society.
 
Almost half of the world’s population uses the internet, and more than a quarter are children, who are easily susceptible to computer addiction. Computers, televisions, smart phones and tablets are not good babysitters, nor are they good fathers, mothers or teachers. Digital-media addiction leads us to a “superficial relationship” with ourselves and the world, and it promotes the identification of reality with virtual reality. On the one hand, “anonymity” in the digital space lowers our self-control and our sensitivity to moral values. On the other, it empowers our propensity for aggression, and truly leads to an increase of violence and lawless activities in the real world. It is not a coincidence that we have experienced a material increase in child crime. Additionally, through digital communications, children are forced to be part of a competitive lifestyle: they are transformed into consumers and they become accustomed to considering themselves and money as their highest values. And even worse, cruel and perverted minds exploit children through the internet, promote child pornography, and cultivate fanaticism and aggressive behavior toward children.
 
In this sense, the “Child Dignity Online” initiative provides an excellent opportunity to inform people about the serious problem of digital child abuse, to sensitize faith communities about this “global epidemic,” to discuss the internet’s impact on children, to mobilize experts to ensure safe access to the web for children and to restrain the proliferation of images of child abuse through the internet. We are convinced that the cultural and moral level of mankind is linked to its attitude toward children and to the way it regards and treats them. There is an urgent need to agree upon necessary, concrete steps and actions to effectively protect the dignity of children in the modern technopolis, and to eradicate the crime of online child exploitation, which affects the bodies and souls of children—their present and their future.
 
This year we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When we speak about human rights we make reference to human dignity, freedom, justice, solidarity and peace. Unfortunately, our world is full of suffering children, whether in war zones, as refugees and immigrants, as sufferers of hunger and disease or as victims of violence and discrimination. Together with the “online abuse of children,” we face “offline” violence against them. We cannot implement the protection of children in cyberspace without combating injustice and violence and working for peace and solidarity. We will not succeed in our endeavor if we continue to treat children as “consumers” or as “markets,” while transforming childhood into an “economic category.” Child protection and the struggle for universal values and the common good are inseparable. Mankind will not be able to find a solution to its great problems if it does not reject and overcome the “attitude of having,” which identifies human happiness and fulfillment with possession and the satisfaction of man’s ever-growing needs.
 
It is in this sense—in the sense of the struggle for the protection of children and in the care for the highest values—that we regard the contribution of religions as indispensable and beneficial. Surely, religions do not have ready-made solutions and answers to all our problems. Nevertheless, they have a series of proven principles; fundamental moral and spiritual values that have been preserved in their traditions. Religions offer help and support, and they orient people toward Good. Since they regard man as God’s creation, they assign the highest value and honor to him. Religions can also contribute to a deeper understanding of human rights by underscoring the social dimension of freedom and the resistance to the transformation of rights into eudemonistic claims and demands. This essential contribution of religions cannot occur and succeed without collaboration and mutual respect among world religions. A sincere interreligious dialogue strengthens our commitment to protecting the sanctity of the human being.
 
The protection of human dignity is a core value of our Orthodox Christian tradition. Through the protection of children, we express this ethos and we follow the special commandment of Jesus Christ, who established a new view of childhood. Jesus welcomed children and warned His disciples not to stand in their way or hinder their development—physical, emotional and spiritual. The lips of children offer the most eloquent praise to God. (Matthew 21:16) In this spirit, we declared 2017 as the year of the protection of the sacredness of childhood. Likewise, the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, which convened on the island of Crete in June 2016, addressed “with particular love and care [the] children and … all young people.” (Encyclical, § 8) It emphasized the necessity and importance of the Orthodox Church’s pastoral care for childhood and referenced the words of Jesus Christ, who—when asked to describe the kingdom of heaven—lifted up a child and said, “Unless you change your ways and become like this child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-3) The Holy and Great Council also highlighted the high value of family as the “only guarantee for the birth and upbringing of children.” (Encyclical, § 7)
 
Nevertheless, although the commitment to protecting children belongs to the core values of great religious traditions, we must painfully and frankly admit that even our religions have often failed to protect our children. Our Lord reserved the harshest condemnation for those who obstruct the development of children, saying: “It would be better for such people to have a large millstone hung around their neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
 
We are obliged to speak for those whose voices are stifled. We are obliged to uphold the dignity of those whose rights are stolen. We are obliged to stand in solidarity with those whose lives are exploited, whose bodies are trafficked, and whose innocence is shattered. We are committed to promoting human dignity, we are dedicated to ending injustice, and we pledge to care for all those who are marginalized in society. Our religions must develop a leading role in the protection of children. We must act more decisively, united with even more determination against online abuse, violence, and exploitation. We must struggle to eradicate general violence against children, to ensure their wellbeing, to protect their rights and to uphold the dignity of childhood. Childhood must regain its essential features that have been lost as a consequence of contemporary developments—children need a childhood that is protected.
 
Distinguished friends, as you are aware, we have worked tirelessly for three decades to awaken consciences and encourage actions for the protection and preservation of God’s creation and the planet’s natural resources. Our inspiration for this ministry is the belief that this world is a sacred gift from our Creator. At the same time, our motivation for this service is the conviction that we must leave behind a better, more beautiful and more sustainable world for our children, as well as for future generations. All the prayers that we offer are useless if there is no world for our children to inherit or inhabit. That is to say, all our efforts for creation are insincere if we fail to protect the lives and promote the dignity of our children. We cannot let them down, we cannot be silent before their mistreatment, and we cannot turn our face away from their exploitation. Otherwise, we risk hearing the judgment of the Lord: “As you did to one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
 
Thank you for your kind attention!