As an Internet safety consultant, Legate Ryan Foley is keenly aware of the threat online pornography poses to families.
With desktop and laptop computers, cell phones and tablets now as common as coffeemakers in many homes, anyone who can tap a keypad or keyboard and view a screen can easily access pornographic images. Their availability is such that studies show 90% of children ages 8 to 16 have viewed pornography online – most while doing homework – and the average age of first exposure to Internet pornography is 11.
Allied with the Archbishop
For the last six years, Foley, vice president for business development at Covenant Eyes and member of Legatus’ North Georgia Chapter, has been working to inform fellow Catholics about this threat by giving presentations and developing faith-based resources to fight online pornography use and addiction. Now he has enlisted a major ally in Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who has made the issue a priority in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
When Archbishop Aymond became aware of the severity of the online pornography threat and its potential impact on marriages and young people, he said he took the matter to prayer. “I felt a call from the Lord to respond to the problem in a pastoral way so I brought a team together to look at it.”
In the process, he learned about Covenant Eyes, which provides both accountability and filtering services for Internet usage. “They have a real grasp of the issue and the dimension where it is affecting people emotionally, spiritually and even physically,” Archbishop Aymond said.
New Year’s initiative
To call attention to the dangers Internet pornography poses to individuals, marriages, families and society, the New Orleans archdiocese has declared Feb. 11 Safe Haven Sunday. Plans for that day include offering parishioners a book, Equipped: Smart Catholic Parenting in a Sexualized Culture, and telling them how to sign up for a free seven-day digital crash course on protecting their families from Internet porn. Foley said the course is available to anyone and he recommended it as a new-year’s initiative for parents seeking to make their homes safe from the intrusion of pornography. It can be accessed by texting the word “secure” to 66866,” Foley said. “It isn’t that they don’t want to protect their kids, but there are so many entry points, whether it’s Instagram or Tumblr, and it’s kind of an overwhelming technical challenge for parents.”
Foley said parents wouldn’t think of giving a child a car and set of keys without instructions, yet technology has developed so quickly that young people have acquired devices before receiving any real education and training and before everyone appreciated the potential dangers. “We are now entering a moment when we see that wasn’t healthy and we’re now playing catch-up… There have to be restrictions and guidelines along with the technology.”
Although families who enroll in the free digital course will be told about the option of purchasing a Covenant Eyes protection plan, Foley said the bottom line is that the company just wants people to do something to protect their families, whether it’s setting up restrictions on their devices or having meaningful conversations with their children about Internet usage.
Keeping porn’s ‘cancer’ away
The number of people using accountability and filtering software like that provided by Covenant Eyes, he said, is insignificant compared to the number who have a device. For example, he said, 88% of children between the ages of 13 and 17 have a phone as do 48% of preteens between 9 and 12. “That’s pretty amazing,” he said. “If a kid has a smartphone and is in his room and bored, those are deadly ingredients for viewing porn.”
Because of the scope of the problem, Foley would like to see the New Orleans plan for Safe Haven Sunday picked up by every diocese in the country and become as big as Respect Life Sunday. He said several bishops already have expressed an interest in using it as a model. But Archbishop Aymond said designating a day to educate people is only the beginning of a fiveyear plan his archdiocese is undertaking. “We’re in for the long haul and we really want to make a change in the culture,” he said.
Before New Orleans seized the issue, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had identified pornography as a social and moral problem requiring the Church’s attention. In their 2015 statement, “Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography,” the bishops say, “The use of pornography by anyone in the home deprives the home of its role as a safe haven and has negative effects throughout a family’s life and across generations.” The bishops’ statement observes that although pornography has always been a problem, its impact has grown in recent years, largely because of the Internet and mobile technology. “Some have even described it as a public health crisis. Everyone, in some way, is affected by increased pornography use in society. We all suffer negative consequences from its distorted view of the human person and sexuality.”
Delicate affair of the heart
Pope Francis also called attention to the problem in a talk he gave Oct. 6 to a conference on “Child Dignity in the Digital World.” He said the harm done to minors by online abuse and exploitation should not be underestimated, adding that adults are hurt as well by such aspects of digital technology as addictions and distorted views of love. But he said it will take more than solutions such as filters and algorithms to address the problem and called for all involved to address the ethical issues inherent in it.
Legate Conor Gallagher of the Charlotte Chapter, a father of 12 who became attuned to the dangers of Internet pornography while writing the book, If Aristotle’s Kid Had an iPod (St. Benedict Press), agreed that technical solutions are not enough. Although he has Covenant Eyes software installed on all the devices used by his children and receives regular reports on what they are viewing, he said it is important that they do not see this as punishment and that they can talk openly with their parents about the content. “If they think you’re doing this because you don’t trust them, then it can be a wedge between you.” Gallagher, who is publisher of St. Benedict Press and TAN Books, said he and his wife tell their children that they have Covenant Eyes because they want to help protect them from outside intruders.
The Gallaghers go over the reports with their children at random intervals. “We’ll see things on there that we want to know about. Like my kid doesn’t have an Instagram account, so why is he on Instagram? Or why did he end up looking at a YouTube video that is questionable? But we’re not pointing the finger and accusing. We know links can take you places and that things pop up. You can be watching a hunting video and then something else comes up. . . . If you have a relationship and can talk about things, then Covenant Eyes is like your best friend, but if you treat it like you’re a prosecutor in court, it can burn the relationship.”
Gallagher said he has little difficulty convincing other parents of the need to do something about the dangers of online pornography. “Every single person I’ve talked to knows it’s a potential problem… They all want to protect their kids and they know it’s dangerous out there.”
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.