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Raising young people to be responsible online citizens

The safety of young people online is of paramount concern to societies today. The Jesuit Institute South Africa and the Catholic Institute of Education have taken this responsibility seriously. They hosted a conference in Johannesburg for schools and civil society to bring their experiences on this urgent matter to bear. Together they discovered and celebrated the possibilities of the internet but also unmasked the many dangers that young people face online. Ricardo da Silva SJ attended the two-day event, his report follows.

Young people need to earn “a new kind of passport”, the kind which gives them “digital citizenship”. They need to acquire the knowledge, skills and tools to become “responsible citizens” in the exciting landscape that is unfolding and presenting them with new possibilities. There is no need to instil fears in parents and educators or to discourage young people from the advantages of modern technology by “demonising technology”. It is important to ensure that today’s young are well-informed, protected and adequately equipped to deal responsibly with the world within which they’ve been born and have come to inhabit.

Our young people need to have “roots of digital resilience” and be aware of the possibilities and vulnerabilities of the digital world. They need to build the confidence to use digital devices more critically. They must grow “wings of digital literacy that allow them to keep real, genuine and authentic relationships and connections”.

These were the opening sentiments of the inaugural speaker at the Digital Pathfinding Seminar hosted at the Sierra Hotel in Randburg, Johannesburg during September 2018.   The seminar was jointly hosted by Catholic Institute of Education (CIE) and Jesuit Institute South Africa (JI) as part of an initiative by the two Catholic organisations. It took for its theme, “Empowering Young People 2B e-safe”.

Hugh Lagan, Catholic priest of the Society of African Missions and clinical psychologist, was the first to address the almost 120 delegates attending the seminar and set the tone for the two days of presentations, discussion and reflection that ensued.

He quoted leading Canadian forensic psychologist Michael Seto, an expert in young people’s online safety, who when studying the impact of technology on young people said, “We are living through one of the largest unregulated social experiments of all time.”

Russell Pollitt, Jesuit priest and director of JI invited those gathered to consider that the digital world has brought us a new and unchartered commodity. “Data”, he said “is like the new oil: there are massive opportunities that open up to us but it is also important to remember that pollution is possible.”

Pollitt has for a number of years been studying the impact of technology on our lives, especially the effects it has on our spiritual lives. He, together with Justine Limpitlaw, an electronic communications lawyer, who was also one of the speakers at the seminar, designed a training programme entitled Living with Integrity in the Digital World.

This programme is offered to schools by JI and is intended for teachers, parents and learners. Through this programme with school communities, Pollitt has amassed important experience which has led him to the conclusion that much more needs to be done to prepare children for the digital world.

In October 2017, he and Limpitlaw were invited to attend an international congress, Child Dignity in the Digital World, at the Jesuits’ Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. There they heard first-hand of the devastating effects that ignorance to online safety can have on young people. “The statistics presented there were alarming” and Pollit added, “South Africa’s abuse records are on average among the highest in the world”.

Pope Francis addressed the Rome congress leaving Pollitt and Limpitlaw with a poignant reflection as they returned to Johannesburg.

“To see children looking us in the eye is an experience we have all had. […] What are we doing to ensure that those children can continue smiling at us, with clear eyes and faces filled with trust and hope? What are we doing to make sure that they are not robbed of this light, to ensure that those eyes will not be darkened and corrupted by what they will find on the internet, which will soon be so integral and important a part of their daily lives?”

After his trip to Rome, Pollitt and CIE Communications Manager Kelsay Corrêa spoke about the possibility of offering something concrete to schools to help them navigate this rapidly evolving, exciting and fearful digital world.

The Digital Pathfinding Seminar was born with the intention to bring together schools and civil society “to ask critical questions, to learn about our use of technology, its impact on our children and the many dangers that accompany life on the world wide web” shared Pollitt.

Delegates came mainly from Catholic schools across South Africa. Some also attended from other private and government schools and educational institutions. They represented a cross-section of those involved in school life. Heads of schools, members of SMTs, CAT and Religion educators and even a few parents and individuals from private organisations participated.

All came to see and hear the industry-leading respected professionals share their wisdom on this critical issue for our time. The speakers were specifically chosen and briefed to address the matters pertaining to young people’s use of and interaction with digital technologies.

Most of the speakers were invited to address the group in plenary sessions. Presentations ranged from psychosocial aspects to the physical and neurological effects that technology has on all – but especially on the developing brains of young people. Plenary sessions included also a practical element. These were focussed on exposing participants to tools that could be used to teach, regulate and design technologies to ensure young people’s safety and active critical engagement when online. Top tech-companies the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft lent their tech-education specialists and policy officers to upskill delegates in these more practical inputs during the seminar.

On the second day, delegates were able to choose from a selection of breakaway sessions so that they could hone-in and get expert advice on the subject as it pertained to their particular areas of responsibility or interest.

Sessions were offered to address the design of schools’ social media and electronic communications policies; to teach young people responsible digital literacy involving them as key players in their safety in the digital world; and to present the duties, responsibilities and the legal recourses available to schools to govern and enforce the responsible use of technology in the school environment.

The influence of technologies, especially internet-based technologies is a neuralgic one affecting us all. The seminar sought to draw special attention to the impact that these have on our young for whom we have prime responsibility. It also equipped those in attendance with some of the knowledge and skills that are necessary for them to brave this digital world responsibly, creatively and unfearingly.

“From participants’ reviews of the seminar it is clear that a need has been met”, reflected Corrêa, “We very much hope that this is the first in a series of initiatives that the CIE-JI partnership can offer to schools so that they can act confidently, responsibly and respectfully within this area which is so key in the lives of our children today.”

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.