In a series of counseling programs organized by Caritas-Colombo, teenagers and young adults are getting help to come to terms with the rise of digital communications, the internet, social networks - and the problems they can bring. With their ability to put users in instant, constant touch with family and friends from all over the world, social networks like Facebook have been a true phenomenon of this century. In Sri Lanka, there are now more than a million Facebook users, 48 percent of them in the 16 to 24 age group. But the effects are not all beneficial. “I have come across a number of young people who have lost focus because of their obsession with Facebook and other distractions,” said Dilini Gunasekera, a Caritas counselor. “They just can’t grasp what is taught to them at school and this habit has affected their family relationships. They don’t have time to talk to their parents because as soon as they reach home they rush to their rooms to meet friends through Facebook, online chat and SMS.” Exposure to pornography and inappropriate relationships that start through the internet are also issues that cause widespread concern. Sri Lankan police say they have received more than 1,000 complaints against Facebook alone. The worst cases are being investigated by the Serious Crimes Unit. Meanwhile, Rohana Palliyaguru, a senior information security consultant, said “we advise Facebook users to complain directly to the US company if they feel their privacy has been violated.” “Our agency has received complaints of people hacking into profiles of young girls and changing their status, or taking their pictures and creating fake profiles, then threatening to blackmail them.” It adds up to a situation where “the need for counseling and guidance for Catholics is felt very badly today,” according to Malkanthi Fernando, psychosocial coordinator of Caritas-Colombo. Sister Fatima Nayaki of Apostolic Carmel, another member of the counseling team, added that “in other times, children learned from teachers at school and from parents at home. Now they are being exposed to unnecessary things through the internet, they are at a loss. They need guidance and sometimes counseling.” In response, Caritas has established three centers, in Colombo, Negombo and Gampaha. Although they are open to people of all ages, it is mainly teenagers and young adults who visit them. Fernando said that, between them, the three centers have around 1,000 clients receiving help. “People come to know about the service through Catholic newspapers and local priests,” she said. Fernando went on to outline Caritas-Colombo’s strategy for expanding the reach of the service. “As a first step we have started exposing catechism teachers to the sessions,” she said. “Through them we can get in touch with more and more youths. We have already conducted a few sessions for the young people and we have plans for more in various places.” “This service is great,” said Anne Perera, a client. “Before this, all we had as Catholics was confession. Now this adds value, as we get psychological guidance here.”
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