Finding Right Paths in the Digital World
The new digital world has expanded our horizons, creating opportunity but also hazards. Two Catholic organisations teamed up to help schools teach their learners how to live in that world with integrity, reports RICARDO DA SILVA SJ.
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 fear in parents and educators, or discourage young people from the advantages of modern technology, or to demonise 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.
This was the advice given by Fr Hugh Lagan, a priest of the Society of African Missions and a clinical psychologist, at a landmark seminar in Johannesburg last September.
The seminar was jointly hosted by the Catholic Institute of Education (CIE) and the Jesuit Institute South Africa as part of an initiative by the two Catholic organisations.
The seminar was themed “Empowering Young People 2B e-safe”.
Fr Lagan quoted 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.”
Fr Russell Pollitt SJ, director of the Jesuit Institute, invited those gathered at the seminar to consider that the new 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.”
Fr 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.
With Justine Limpitlaw, an law expert in electronic communications, he has designed a training programme entitled “Living with Integrity in the Digital World”.
This programme is offered to schools by the Jesuit Institute and is intended for teachers, parents and learners.
Through this programme with school communities, Fr 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 Ms Limpitlaw were invited to attend an international congress on 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 of online safety can have on young people.
The statistics presented were alarming and South Africa’s abuse statistics were on average among the highest in the world.
Inspired by Pope Francis
Pope Francis addressed the Rome congress, leaving Fr Pollitt and Ms 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,” the pope observed.
“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, Fr 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 Internet.
Delegates to the seminar came mainly from Catholic schools across South Africa. Some also attended from other private and government schools and educational institutions.
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 focused 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.
“From participants’ reviews of the seminar, it is clear that a need has been met,” said Ms Corrêa.
“We very much hope that this is the first in a series of initiatives that the CIE-Jesuit Institute 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,” she said.