ROME – New Hampshire is the lone state among the original 13 American colonies in which no Revolutionary War battle was fought, but militias from the “Live Free or Die” state did play key roles in several turning points in the struggle for independence, including helping the Continental Army win the Battle of Saratoga.
Perhaps that background helps explain why the New Hampshire contingent at an Oct. 3-6 summit at Rome’s Gregorian University devoted to “Child Dignity in the Digital Age” has been the most emphatic voice of optimism, insisting that the struggle against child abuse and exploitation online is not only a battle that can be fought, but it can be won.
From the beginning of the conference, one strong thrust has been to sound alarms about the massive dimensions of child abuse online.
Tim Morris, Executive Director of Police Services for Interpol, told participants that the “incidents” the global law enforcement agency flagged in 2016 – meaning a lewd comment on-line, an upload of offensive material, an attempt to lure a young person into sexual situations, and so on – amounted to 2.3 million on 15 notorious websites they monitor.
In the first eight months of 2017, he said, Interpol has already logged 3 million incidents.
Ernie Allen, the former director of the National Center for Mission and Exploited Children in the U.S. estimated that roughly eighty percent of the traffic on the “dark web,” vast portions of the internet designed to be anonymous and impenetrable, is directed to child pornography.
Against that backdrop, the can-do New Hampshire voice has been insistent: We’ve already made surprising progress, and we can do more.
“In the U.S., child sexual abuse overall has declined significantly since the mid-1990s, when the internet became widespread,” said Janis Wolak of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.
“This does not mean that the problem has gone away, by any means, but there has been some success in prevention,” she said.
Wolak also insisted that new technologies don’t just benefit offenders, but also law enforcement and child safety advocates.
“Our research does suggest that the internet and related technology has had some positive impacts in our ability to respond to child sexual abuse,” she said. “Images, often, when we interview police, bring cases to life, and this evidence leads to high prosecution rates.
“Child sexual abuse is distressing in every form, but its technological footprint, by making it more evident, may enhance society’s ability to prevent these crimes,” Wolak said.
That note came amid a mounting sense of just how steep the hill to climb actually is.
Baroness Joanna Shields, founder of the “WePROTECT” global alliance and a former internet safety official of the British government, warned that “Web Utopia” visions stressing the promise of the digital world in terms of global connectivity and democratization of conversation need to come to terms with the shadow side.
“As a society, we tend to focus on the positives and we tend to think that these are fringe cases, that only happen every so often,” Shields said in a Crux interview.
“I don’t mean to be fear-mongering here, but we’ve got some very serious developments that are impacting young people,” Shields said. “We have to go into this with our eyes wide open, and my argument is that we’ve left it late. We were all caught up in the rhetoric of this utopian digital world, where we’re all connected and doing great things together, but realistically there are a lot of problems that have been showing for a long time.”
Over and over, participants stressed that the sprawling, fast-changing landscape of the internet creates a natural safe haven for offenders, who find both anonymity and also a sense of support in connecting with other people who share their proclivities and interests.
Yet David Finkelhor, also of the University of New Hampshire and considered a leading researcher in the area of child abuse, argued that child safety leaders aren’t powerless in the face of new threats.
In fact, he said, one of the most “robust, enduring and important findings in the social scientific literature” is that intelligently crafted, long-term programs designed to promote childhood health and safety actually work.
Finkelhor ticked off several examples:
- Programs to decrease the likelihood of children taking drugs
- Programs to reduce risky sexual behavior
- Programs to increase media literacy among young people
- Programs to increase children’s general health
To be sure, Finkelhor was also clear that not everything works. He said, for instance, that programs that are overly brief without adequate follow-up, those that simply involve lectures on a single topic, and those that rely on “warnings and fears” have been shown to be ineffective.
Available data, he said, suggest a few key elements programs need to contain in order to be effective:
- Emotion regulation
- Dealing with impulses
- Conflict situations
- How to resist peer pressure
- How to get help from peers and other sources
“The failures indicated that they did not learn from the skills that have proved effective in helping children,” he said, reinforcing the basically encouraging message that we actually know, more or less, what works.
Finkelhor also conceded that most of the available data comes from “the pretty narrow realm of Western Europe and North America,” but also said evidence suggests that where similar programs have been implemented in other parts of the world, they’re fairly “transferrable.”
In the end, his message was that something can be done.
“It’s rare that you look at science and feel encouraged,” he said, “but this is something we should keep in the forefront of our awareness.”
That realization, he said, should generate “a strong sense of optimism that we really can accomplish something in this area.”
For a Church, and a world, still struggling to recover from seemingly endless failures, scandals and sources of heartbreak, that’s a dose of hope that’s badly needed in a meeting such as this.