Cardinal expresses concern about preteens using social media

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, at a press conference in Bari, Italy, on Jan. 22, 2020. Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

An Italian cardinal expressed concern this week about the use of social media by children, encouraging the Church to do its part to give young people hope for the future amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, spoke about kids and social media use on 24 January, after the death of a 10-year-old girl in Sicily, which some have tied to use of the video platform TikTok. 

“You have to pay close attention to kids. At the very least, they can approach certain [social media] programs when they are older — 14-15 years old — but at 8-10 years old it is harmful,” Bassetti told journalists after Sunday Mass at the cathedral of the archdiocese of Perugia.

The cardinal was responding to a question about the accidental death of a 10-year-old child in Palermo last week. The child’s father told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that, according to their other daughter, the girl had been playing a TikTok “game” before her death. The “game,” reportedly called the “blackout challenge,” involves restricting oxygen to the brain to induce a high.

“Certainly there is also a responsibility of the media,” Bassetti said, declining to comment on the specific situation of the family in Palermo, which he said he did not know.

He added that with young children, “the sense of imitation is very strong, and if you create a hero figure or even the sense of competition, we can have tragic results, as has happened.”

The coronavirus pandemic has created “a sad moment and a difficult moment, especially for kids and young people,” he said, “and therefore, we need to be close to them also as a Church. We must do more.”

The girl died in a hospital after being found with her cell phone in the bathroom on 20 January by her five-year-old sister. The child’s phone was taken by police.

After the accident, the Italian Data Protection Authority blocked access to TikTok users whose ages cannot be proven, at least through 15 February. TikTok’s terms and conditions state that users must be at least 13 years old.

Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation into the death, which has been widely reported as being caused by the video-making platform.

TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is cooperating with authorities in the investigation into possible “incitement to suicide.”

The company responded on 22 January that it had not identified any content on its platform which could have induced the child to participate in something such as the “blackout challenge.”

Bassetti also commented on the need for hope during the coronavirus emergency — and the role young people can have in communicating hope to the elderly and disabled.

“If hope is not brought by young people and we are unable to communicate hope to young people, who should transmit it?” he said.

In his homily at Mass, the cardinal addressed young people specifically, especially “adolescents, who live in an age of transition, of delicate and fundamental personal growth for their life, but who are forced to live it indoors, without being able to establish normal social relationships.”

“There is too much silence about these boys and girls who are inadvertently taking on the heaviest social burden of this pandemic: these young people are giving up their youth, their carefreeness, their energy,” Bassetti said.

He encouraged young people to make sense of their sacrifices, even if mandatory, by making them “a gesture of love for the weakest, the most fragile, the old.”

“You are making a great effort,” he stated, “but have faith in God as the disciples did. Follow Jesus and you will do great things in your life.”

Source: CNA