We must work to keep young safe

Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001
Martin Seeley, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ANL-160122-093657001
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Helping young people to be safe from the dangers within today’s world is the responsibility of all of us.

Many of us may have memories of what seemed to be a safer and simpler age when we were growing up.

We were taught about stranger danger, about not talking to people we did not know and about where it was safe to walk.

But stranger danger has taken a different turn today. The stranger can be on the internet, pretending to be someone they are not.

Children and young people rely on the internet for information, entertainment and connections.

Those of us who spend even a little time on the internet know how compelling it can be, as one link leads to another.

The development of the internet began in the 1960s and Tim Berners-Lee, an English computer scientist, invented the world wide web during the 1980s. From the 1990s onwards the internet has taken over as a global source of information.

The growth of social media began in the 1990s with the impact beginning to be felt in the early 2000s. Facebook was launched in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010 and Snapchat in 2012.

We can trace how our own use of emails and the web has changed and realise just how quickly and recently the internet has come to be such a dominant and hugely beneficial means of communication.

It is a wonderful resource, for learning and creating connections across the world. We all are able to stay in touch with friends and family so much more easily now.

But that also means that we can be contacted by anyone who wants to try to contact us. We know that from the random and unwanted emails we receive.

An adult with evil intentions can pretend to be a young person online, and through the process of making ‘friends’ lure their young victim to meet up.

On-line grooming with the hidden purpose of sexual exploitation preys on youngsters who are seeking friendship, some sort of connection and acceptance. They are vulnerable to online expressions of kindness and flattery.

I did not appreciate quite how easily a young person can be drawn into the trap, until I attended a presentation for parents on the topic of internet safety for young people. The session was very disturbing.

Of course much of the world, and particularly Suffolk, is still very safe, but there will always be rogue individuals online, in any organisation, or walk of life, and it is wise to safeguard against it as best we can.

Fortunately schools organise sessions for parents and it is vital those of us with young people in our families attend these opportunities to learn about the risks.

For the young, schools assisted by police youth support officers and others, provide a good deal of material to make them aware of online and social media dangers.

There are good resources on the internet to help young people and parents understand the consequences of sending inappropriate photos to friends, sharing photos without a person’s permission, or putting entries on Facebook that in future will raise concerns with an employer.

We can never completely delete what in haste we put online. The dangers are acute because the activity involved happens in a ‘private’ space.

Youngsters need good, fair, mature and attentive engagement by adults that is offered on terms young people accept.

This is not just about parents or other relatives, or teachers, but about those other important relationships with safe and responsible adults who give a young person another reference point as they grow up.

That may be through organisations like the local church, running superb young people’s programmes that the youngsters have had a hand in planning, with leaders who can serve as role models.

There are church programmes like that across Suffolk, organised by local churches making a difference, and it is my hope that in the next couple of years we can develop many more of these.

These, and similar programmes, need to be places where the young people can develop trusting and trustworthy connections with adults – through activities like sport or music – which provide an opportunity for conversations.

Then the adults – including the parents – need not be bashful or naïve about talking about relationships, sex, using the internet, what is right and wrong, what is safe and life-giving and what is dangerous and destructive.

For some young people these vital adult relationships, in addition to parents who may not be the young person’s starting point for difficult conversations, do happen via shared activities.

For others, it starts in a safe place where they can talk about anything that is important to them.

Young people today have a real concern for the environment, for the nature of politics and issues of justice. Moments where young people can have those conversations provide chances to talk about the challenges of growing up.

We who are older must not be afraid of those conversations, and need to listen carefully to our young people.

Their experience is very different from ours when we were their age. They are in some ways growing up faster than we did.

They are young human beings finding their way in the world, loved by God, and must be kept safe, and valued by us.

-- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich