Turn on the television and singer and former Disney star, Miley Cyrus, is seemingly naked and riding on a wrecking ball.
Flip on the radio and shock jocks spew expletives or hate speech.
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Beyoncé performed a suggestive dance in revealing attire at this year’s Grammy Awards. Violence rages on video screens. Emails hawk Internet porn and male enhancement drugs.
Many experts agree that our culture is sinking into a quagmire of vulgarity and immorality with children and teens at the frontlines of exposure. Many parents lack awareness of the potential dangers from the media, including links and “apps” that can be accessed through Facebook and other sites.
The archdiocese is focusing on Media & Morality and Creating a Kid Friendly Culture to encourage Internet safety, and in recognition of Safe Environment Week, April 6-12, which coincides with the Child Abuse Prevention Month in the United States.
Create culture of respect
The goal is to concentrate on creating a culture of dignity and respect within the current media culture, according to Patti Loehrer, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s safe environment coordinator, in an email response to Catholic Herald Family.
“Children are currently immersed in a culture of media,” she said. “We want children and youth to be able to make good and healthy decisions when engaged in media – all media – television, movies, music, video games, etc. We want them to be able to take a healthy approach to the powerful technology that surrounds them.”
Though the archdiocese promotes a safe environment throughout the year, Loehrer said one week in April is chosen annually to add special awareness activities during this observance.
“The Safeguarding All of God’s Family is a ministry that covers all ages,” she said. “We create, maintain and promote safe environments for all children and youth. We also create, maintain and promote awareness of the environments we live and learn as to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
As a special agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Eric Szatkowski works in the Division of Criminal Investigation and is assigned to the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in Milwaukee. The former journalist witnesses the harmful effects of exposure to explicit rock music, sexting, social networking, and gratuitous sex on TV every day.
Agent says parents must share values
Szatkowski, one of the top officers in the nation in apprehending sexual predators who use the Internet, cell phones and/or social media to hurt children, has arrested hundreds of sexual perpetrators who have traveled distances to have sex with an underage boy or girl. His arrests also include those who sexually assault children, engage in child pornography, expose children to harmful materials or prostitute children.
As a Catholic father, he and his wife safely raised their own children in a digital world, and he works with parents and teachers to do the same.
“I believe that the first thing parents have to share is their values and their virtues with their children in every aspect of their lives,” he said in a phone interview. “They have to live their faith, and that is more than just an hour on Sundays. It needs to be something that they are living examples of every day of the week, so that their children will pick up on their Christian values and virtues and be able to apply them to settings in life in which their morality is going to be challenged.
He added that if parents don’t model faith and virtues for their children, the secular culture will create and fill that gap in their lives.
Internet crimes on the rise
Szatkowski has seen the trend in Internet crime increase significantly in the past 15 years. Most of the parents he speaks with grew up in a pre-Internet culture and were limited in the number of immoral exposures.
“When we were kids, the exposure to magazines, billboards, TV, and movies was pretty well restricted,” he said. “You had a few seedy porn shops in certain neighborhoods, but there was no way kids were going to get exposed to what was inside.”
According to Szatkowski, the past 15 years have served as a digital explosion of Internet, technological advances, cell phones, smart phones, online games, and social networking. He said kids are growing up in an environment in which all of the seedy elements of society are no longer restricted in certain areas.
“Now they can be exposed to all of these things anywhere they turn. Because of social networking, the web, online gaming and whatever platform there is, it is simply a snapshot in the world in which we live,” Szatkowski said.
He described the world as a pot in which kids are mixed with the good, bad, ugly holy and virtuous.
“The pot is stirred around and there are going to be some areas where kids are going to be safe and others areas where they are at risk; and what keeps kids from being exposed or being tempted to indulge in this are the values and virtues that parents are responsible for sharing.”
Kids often not prepared for ‘graphic stuff’
Dr. William Thorn, associate professor of journalism in the Diederich College of Communication/Journalism at Marquette University, prepared a radio piece with Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki slated to run April 4 on Relevant Radio. It covers the intrusion of media in the family and individual life.
“There has been great concern regarding the violence, sex and sexual references on TV and in the movies, and that has changed in recent years to concern about the time spent on the Internet. What one is exposed to on the Internet brings to light some safety questions, such as sexting and what kids are doing to each other, as they are not mature enough to understand the damage that can happen in their lives,” he said during a phone conversation. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that about 70 percent of kids run across things they are not prepared for, and with a couple of clicks of a mouse, they are looking at graphic stuff.”
From a developmental and psychological standpoint, children are not prepared to handle some of the Internet content or know what to do with it, explained Thorn. Much of it is retained in the child’s memory, but making sense of it is not necessarily something they can do until later in adolescence.
“If they recollect this, it can have some deleterious effects,” he said. “For example, when a child sees graphic violence, and the movie ‘Jaws’ was the first one that raised that if a child sees this before 7 or 8 years of age, and there is no one to help them process what they have seen, there may be later consequences, such as being afraid of water, even in their 20s. The image goes back to a time where they did not have the maturity to process the information.”
Placing boundaries on media usage is important
Placing boundaries on viewing media is important, as well as placing computers in a public area of the home, such as the living room or dining room, so parents can monitor what their children are doing, according to Thorn.
“We can’t always do that on the smart phones, but parents can talk about the dangers of it, especially when a story comes up on something such as sexting,” said Thorn. “Keeping an open communication channel regarding things that are frightening and upsetting is a good strategy because you can’t be with the children all the time. We cannot pretend that technology and the Internet is not here anymore as it is too pervasive. Over 96 percent of homes have access to the Internet and over 500 million Internet connected devices are used every day. It is the reality of our lives and we need to teach computer and Internet safety the same way we teach car and traffic safety.”
Szatkowski agreed, and added that placing parental controls, filtering and monitoring software are also good weapons in the arsenal, but the number one deterrent is a foundation of parents being a living example of faith and sharing their Christian values and virtues with their kids.
“You can’t be with the kids all the time,” he said. “They go to school, spend time at their friends’ (homes), and there is peer pressure and they can be exposed to temptations to all kinds of things. If they don’t have a fundamental moral basis, they are going to make decisions and get into situations that are not good spiritually, emotionally, educationally or psychologically.”
Despite the parent’s best efforts to live a virtuous life, Szatkowski understands it is not a panacea to all of the problems. He encourages parents to do their best and hope their values will be instilled.
“No advice is 100 percent bulletproof, but do your best, monitor what your kids are doing, check out their friends, talk to parents and address any difficult situations,” he said. “I don’t know the perfect solution or answer, but it worked for my wife and (me) and our kids. Everything worked out OK, but for the grace of God, who knows?”
Faith-based, family guide available
In the belief that safe technology can be achieved, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has collaborated with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America to create a faith-based, family friendly guide to safety in the digital world. The site https://faithandsafety.org is comprehensive, and includes collaborations and commonsense media posts from members of both churches.
“The focus of the site is saying that the best technology is going to be useless if you don’t have involved parents or adults,” explained Helen Osman, secretary of communications for the USCCB, in a phone conversation. “We can offer a whole list of ways to secure devices and we have that kind of technological information, but it takes the whole community to help a child go from innocence to wisdom. What is appropriate for a 15-year-old is not appropriate for a 5-year old and the approach is to grow from innocent kids to wise adults.”
While some parents might decide to prohibit cell phones, television, video games and Internet usage to protect their children, Osman said sealing children off from media will not protect them, as the digital world comprises such a large percentage of today’s culture.
Facebook no longer ‘cool’
“Responsible parenting is walking with our children to grow them as good Christian witnesses,” she explained. “There are so many new anonymous platforms such as ‘Snap chat’ and ‘Ask me,’ because kids are saying it is no longer cool to be on Facebook. If you are not an involved parent, you don’t know about this. If I were to say and if you were to ask me what is the one thing a parent can do if they don’t know where to start is to visit faithandsafety.org and find the section on the site called media agreements. I think this can be a good tool for parents to start having age appropriate conversations.”
Embracing and safely using technology can be a means to evangelize, explained Osman, who believes that children can develop the tools to protect themselves.
“If you look at what the Holy Father is calling us to do in this world of communications, and instant messages, it is to be a witness and missionary in this digital continent, and our kids are on the cutting edge of this,” she said. “If we affirm that kind of behavior and help them, rather than tell them that all media is bad, they can learn to creatively witness as Christians.”
Mass, contest during special week
Throughout Safe Environment Week, students will participate in several activities designed to promote an awareness of digital safety. Included in this week will be a poster contest and video contest open to students in K4-6, enrolled in Archdiocese of Milwaukee schools or parish religious education programs.
Archbishop Listecki will offer the annual Mass of Atonement on Tuesday, April 8, at Lumen Christi Parish. All members of the Catholic community are welcome to attend, especially victims of abuse.