In 2023 there were more than 275,000 child pornography websites on the internet, with approximately 11,000 photos generated by AI in just one month. Credit: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash (Courtesy of Catholic News Agency)

Andrés Henríquez
Catholic News Agency

“What dangers does artificial intelligence (AI) present for the safety of children in digital environments?” was the topic addressed by a conference organized by the S.O.S Il Telefono Azzurro Foundation and the Italian Embassy at the Holy See as part of the National Day against Pedophilia and Child Pornography, which is observed in Italy every May 5.

According to its website, Il Telefono Azzuro (“The Blue Telephone”) “offers a hotline service, managed by 114 Children’s Emergency, through which it is possible to report illicit or potentially harmful content for children and adolescents.”

Disturbing statistics were reported at the event: In 2023 there were more than 275,000 child pornography websites on the internet with approximately 11,000 photos generated by AI in just one month. However, these figures could be even higher, Vatican News noted, given that this new phenomenon “is difficult to quantify concretely.”

The conference, titled “The Dignity of Children in the Digital World,” was held at the Borromeo Palace in Rome. Ernesto Caffo, president of Telefono Azzurro, noted that children and adolescents are increasingly exposed to platforms that contain tools “that can lead to risky behavior.”

For Caffo, this represents a new and important challenge, because it impacts all the control mechanisms that have been implemented in recent years. Although new technologies can be wonderful tools, any weak points can also “be a source of increasing risks for new generations,” he said.

This serious situation, said the president of the Italian foundation — whose mission is to protect children and adolescents from any abuse and violence — must be addressed at the highest international level, such as at the next G7 summit, in order to present proposals on the issue.

Caffo also highlighted the important role of Pope Francis, who can contribute to the effort by addressing the issue of “the dignity of the person as a key element to which we all must be committed.”

Cardinal Seán O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, pointed out during his talk that technological advances require and demand “a balance between technological progress and human values.”

O’Malley emphasized that Pope Francis has stated on several occasions that “technology must serve to improve human life, and not the other way around.”

“The Church’s commitment to new technologies, particularly AI, is rooted in its mission to protect people, in line with the Gospel,” the cardinal said.

He further added that the Catholic Church is “actively contributing to the global conversation on the responsible use of AI, in line with human values and ethical standards.”

Carla Garlatti, who heads an Italian government agency for the protection of children and adolescents, said it is possible to promote initiatives and tools to control the access of children and adolescents to platforms with inappropriate content.

However, jurist Guido Scorza stated that controls are “difficult to apply at this time” because young people tend to use content designed for older persons.

Lastly, Father Hans Zollner, dean of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Institute of Anthropology, warned of the risk of smartphones, which “make us [believe] we have everything under control, but that’s not the case.”

Zollner also reiterated Pope Francis’ call for “creating and adopting an international treaty on AI,” a crucial issue for the future of humanity.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.