By Cardinal Justin Rigali

Recently, we have been reading a great deal about the problem of obesity in children and young people. It is certainly an area in which concern is justified because of the ultimate adverse effect on the health of the child or young person that an improper diet and obesity will have. One of the reasons this has become a source of concern in our modern society is the widespread consumption of “fast foods,” which are often very poor in nutrition and high in fat and the busy lives led by parents today, which sometimes do not provide enough time for preparing a healthy meal.

There is another concern, which also has its origins in something that is available in our modern society. Its challenge is also great because it can exclude parents from exercising their proper role in the healthy upbringing of their children. It also has very serious long-term effects, which may not be readily noticeable but may return to harm both child and parent. This danger is found in many new and advanced technologies, especially those which affect communications and entertainment.

While these technologies present many wonderful opportunities for knowledge, helpful communication and healthy recreation, they also contain many dangers. “Widespread access to the Internet and new delivery devices (cell phones, iPods, PlayStations, Wii gaming systems, etc.) provide numerous channels for delivery of pornography, sexualized messages, and sexual solicitations to millions of men, women, and children. Each day in our nation, young people are victimized by those who seek to steal their innocence and corrupt their minds.” This quote was taken from a very helpful pamphlet entitled: “Sex and Cell Phones: Protect Your Children,” and I will be making reference to it and advise you on how to obtain a copy later in this article.

The possible unhealthy “consumption” of these devices and their long-term adverse effects call to mind the words of Jesus: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Matthew 10:28).

Weakened support system
We may say that, in a simpler time, many people and institutions within the community held to a common goal when it came to teaching children and young people the values and restrictions that go into living a virtuous and productive life. Even the entertainment industry was conscious of this responsibility at one time. Sadly, with a few exceptions, this is no longer the case. Many of the pillars that once upheld the structures that helped parents in the upbringing of their children are no longer present. This, along with the technology we have mentioned, can present dangers to our young people which were unheard of a generation ago.

In his address to the bishops of the United States during his visit to our country, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned the challenges presented by our modern American culture several times. Concerning the issue I am addressing here, he said: “Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships. They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today. They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person. This brings us back to our consideration of the centrality of the family and the need to promote the Gospel of life. What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today? We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike” (Address, Celebration of Vespers and Meeting with the Bishops of the United States, 16 April 2008).

Response to these realities
It is necessary to admit that the modern media and entertainment industry has a tremendous effect on the lives and ways of thinking of our children and young people. Very often, the messages that concern marriage, sexuality, the family and the overall dignity of the human person are at odds with the message of Jesus in the Gospels. We do not stand mute before these challenges. While the challenges may be new because they involve technology that was not previously a part of our lives, the means to combat these challenges, namely the vigilance of parents, are with us as they will always be.

In 1986, responding to the challenges that were already present in the areas of technology and entertainment, a national organization of religious leaders was founded to help in the battle against pornography in the lives of families and inspaniduals. It is called the Religious Alliance Against Pornography (RAAP). While the RAAP has been somewhat effective in its dealings with the companies who distribute cell phones, the need for information to be distributed to parents continues.

Many of us are intimidated by these modern means of technology. What adult has not said: “My child knows more about these things than I do”? The fact is that we who are adults do not have the luxury of dismissing our responsibility because of a lack of knowledge. The RAAP has attempted to help parents by producing the pamphlet I mentioned earlier in this article: “Sex and Cell Phones: Protect Your Children.” Since the point of this pamphlet is to get it into the hands of as many parents as possible, it is easy and free to obtain. You are free to download it from the Internet by going to:, then click on Resources, then click on “Sex and Cell Phones” and you can print copies.

The possibilities of what seem to be small, innocent looking cell phones are endless. In the hands of unsuspecting children or young people, they can be the source of images, films and dangerous communications. One of the great services that the RAAP and its pamphlet have provided for us is a list of questions that parents can ask when arranging a service plan for their child’s cell phone. These questions make the process less daunting. I will share them with you here not only as a means for parents to be vigilant but also as a summary for all of us of what harmful possibilities these means of communication and technology can contain. Here are the questions the RAAP suggest a parent ask at the time of purchase:

Internet Accessibility
Can this device be connected to the Internet?
Can this connection be turned on and off, and if so, how?
What is the additional cost of Internet access?
How can I block connections to social networking web sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, etc.?

Internet Filtering/Monitoring
Are there appropriate parental controls to filter, block and/or monitor Internet access? If so, how can they be installed?
How can I prevent these controls from being circumvented?

Forms of Communication
Can this device send and receive e-mails, text messages and instant messages?
Can the device produce, receive and distribute pictures or video footage? Can this capability be turned on and off, and if so, how?

Usage Controls
How can I limit the times of day and length of time the device can be used?
How can I limit the contact list for both incoming and outgoing calls?

Sexually Explicit Content
Can the device be used to obtain sexually explicit content through a connection to the Internet, a memory stick, a connection to other wireless devices, e-mails or in any other manner? How can I disengage/monitor this capability?

Final Question
Will you help me set up these parental controls and understand how to keep them effective in the future?

A time of decision
The expression “taking back” is sometimes used in certain circumstances. For example, a community may attempt to “take back” a neighborhood that has become infested with criminal activity. Perhaps for too long we have sat back, as a way of life has been set before our children as being “normal” while it is actually contrary to everything we believe in. Awareness is always the first step. That is what I am attempting this week by this article. Knowledge should always be followed by action. That is what the Religious Alliance Against Pornography is helping us to do by their helpful pamphlet. By not allowing us to claim ignorance of technology as an excuse for not acting, it empowers us in our effort to “take back” our proper roles in this all important area.

8 January 2009