Bishop Robert Barron has a wonderfully fresh perspective on social media and its use. See here and here. He criticizes the technology sharply, but he also embraces its more positive characteristics, even to the point of celebrating it as a spiritual phenomenon.
But is it really possible to use social media well? Can one be on social media without impacting one’s moral or spiritual life? There are a few challenges to the good use of social media that are worth highlighting, especially vis-a-vis Pope Francis’ comments in Christus Vivit and Gaudete et Exsultate. In particular, social media can have significantly harmful impacts when it comes to our prayer, our pride, and our “pathos.”
Bishop Barron’s videos linked above aren’t brand new, but, of course, they do highlight a number of the challenges that Catholics face when using social media, how it can quickly devolve into bitterness, how it is addicting, and how it can isolate groups from one another. In his videos, he offers some practical support and guidance to people looking to use social media more prudently.
Pope Francis, in Christus Vivit, speaks in mixed terms about social media. He devotes four paragraphs entirely to the “web and social networks.” He understands that the internet can provide an opportunity for “dialogue, encounter, and exchange,” along with many other political and social benefits, but he also notes that, “[i]t is not healthy to confuse communication with mere virtual contact.” In the Pope’s vision, social media is a tool and mission ground, but it has a much darker side. Quoting the final synod document, Pope Francis writes:
The digital environment is also one of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation and violence, even to the extreme case of the ‘dark web’. Digital media can expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships. New forms of violence are spreading through social media, for example cyberbullying. The internet is also a channel for spreading pornography and the exploitation of persons for sexual purposes or through gambling
If God only calls us to do what leads us to greater holiness, then the question must be asked, are you and I called to be on social media? Is it part of God’s plan for us to be on social media as much as we are? If it impacts our prayer lives, worsens our pride, or makes us numb to the real pain and suffering in our communities, then, it would seem, we are not so called.
There is a near-perfect reverse analogy between the saint who prays and the man who spends all his days on social media. The saint is devoted entirely to the Word of God; the social-media man is devoted entirely to his own words. The saint is concerned about his own failings; the social-media man is concerned about the failings of others. The saint’s life is filled with silence; the social-media man’s life is filled with excitement, noise, and emotion.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that the use of social media is inherently incompatible with a healthy prayer life. Yet, as Bishop Barron noted in his videos, social media is designed to be addictive. We come back to it, minute after minute, day after day. If the first thing you do in the morning is check your phone, Bishop Barron suggested, then you have a problem. Francis also wrote:
The same distractions that are omnipresent in today’s world also make us tend to absolutize our free time, so that we can give ourselves over completely to the devices that provide us with entertainment or ephemeral pleasures. As a result, we come to resent our mission, our commitment grows slack, and our generous and ready spirit of service begins to flag. This denatures our spiritual experience. Can any spiritual fervour be sound when it dwells alongside sloth in evangelization or in service to others?
St. Paul said to “pray always”. For the Christian, “pray always” is no metaphor. All our activity throughout the day can be permeated by the love of God, but this requires, in the words of Pope Francis, a “habitual openness to the transcendent.” In little decisions or big decisions, in our work or leisure, God is speaking to us and working within us to bring us into his divine life. This is true for all Christians. But of course, in order to pray, we must listen:
Trust-filled prayer is a response of a heart open to encountering God face to face, where all is peaceful and the quiet voice of the Lord can be heard in the midst of silence. […] Unless we listen, all our words will be nothing but useless chatter.
Does social media distract us? Does it keep us from prayerful listening? Because of social media, it is so hard to listen to the voice of God, even when we want to listen. Francis writes:
The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good. All of us, but especially the young, are immersed in a culture of zapping. We can navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three virtual scenarios. Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend.
As Pope Francis suggests, instead of being keyed into the voice of God, we are bombarded with “immense possibilities” and “passing trends” that keep us engaged with the world instead of firmly entrenched in the loving presence of God. The challenge for social-media users is to not let the distractions and addictiveness of social media crowd God out of our lives.
Bishop Barron and Brandon Vogt discuss a lot of particular problems with social media, including the phenomena of scapegoating and group polarization. Social media platforms are not only designed to keep us coming back for more, but also to give us more of what we like to see, ensuring that whatever might really cause us to change our views are presented to us, more or less, on our terms. Pope Francis wrote:
The way many platforms work often ends up favouring encounter between persons who think alike, shielding them from debate. These closed circuits facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate.
In very practical ways, this can numb us to the fact that, in reality, God is constantly challenging us, calling us out of our present sinfulness, to live in the freedom of his love and truth. On this point, Pope Francis said:
We must remember that prayerful discernment has to be born of an openness to listening – to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways. Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas.
Also built into these social media programs is the concept of “liking,” “retweeting,” and “sharing”. In short, social media caters to our pride insofar as we say things in order to be recognized. I see in Francis’ words on the beatitudes a very real critique of how I have been using social media:
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”
These are strong words in a world that from the beginning has been a place of conflict, disputes and enmity on all sides, where we constantly pigeonhole others on the basis of their ideas, their customs and even their way of speaking or dressing. Ultimately, it is the reign of pride and vanity, where each person thinks he or she has the right to dominate others. Nonetheless, impossible as it may seem, Jesus proposes a different way of doing things: the way of meekness. This is what we see him doing with his disciples. It is what we contemplate on his entrance to Jerusalem: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey” (Mt 21:5; Zech 9:9).
Of course, we are all familiar too with how certain tweets and facebook posts are nothing else than attempts to bring others down. The worst part is that we do it–I did it–because we know that they are among our most liked and shared posts. Few people on social media want to see someone thinking through an issue carefully and speaking to and about our enemies in love and humility, but this is precisely what we are called to do as Christians. In fact, Bishop Barron relates a story of what happens when do speak charitably: people are converted!
Pope Francis wrote:
Needless to say, anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness.
When we choose to do something because of the attention it will bring us and not because we have discerned it is the will of God, we have sinned.
Finally, one other challenge to social media use is, of course, virtue signaling. Bishop Barron has discussed this phenomenon in a variety of topics, including in his videos dedicated to social media. Virtue signaling harms the integrity of the moral life because we can feel like we’re doing something about a significant problem, but in actuality, we’re doing nothing and it costs us nothing.
Pope Francis said:
Digital spaces blind us to the vulnerability of another human being and prevent us from our own self-reflection. […] For many people, immersion in the virtual world has brought about a kind of “digital migration”, involving withdrawal from their families and their cultural and religious values, and entrance into a world of loneliness and of self-invention, with the result that they feel rootless even while remaining physically in one place.
Social media and its virtuality can suck the joy out of our lives and zaps our energy to do real good in our communities, for the poor and homeless, for those in desperate need to hear the Gospel. The key, Bishop Barron said, is to be on social media “in love,” not in a sentimental way but truly willing the good of the other, remembering always that there is a real person behind those words we read.
Social media does have its virtues. Pope Francis shows how social media can be an important part of the lives of young people, explicitly connecting social media with mission. That is to say, Francis extols social media to the extent that is helps young people to build up community and evangelize. He writes:
As for outreach, I trust that young people themselves know how best to find appealing ways to come together. They know how to organize events, sports competitions and ways to evangelize using social media, through text messages, songs, videos and other ways. They only have to be encouraged and given the freedom to be enthused about evangelizing other young people wherever they are to be found.
Young people can find new fields for mission in the most varied settings. For example, since they are already so familiar with social networks, they should be encouraged to fill them with God, fraternity and commitment.
Are you called to use social media? Maybe, maybe not. Admittedly, if one simply stops using social media, there would not be many tangible benefits. It’s not so much the lack of social media that is good, but rather what one does in the time instead, what vices one works to overcome, and what virtues one works on building up.
One thing that is clear, for both Francis and Bishop Barron, is that our social media is in desperate need of God. As Christians, we must go to where the people are, and they are on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Provided that we can live out our call to charity and we are not harmed by the practice, the Church–meaning you and me–must minister to people even there.