I came across this thought-provoking talk given by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle (Pro-Prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization) last week in Bangkok for the Asian Bishops’ General Conference. He spoke on the impact of social media and artificial intelligence on young people today. He notes how these new technologies have dramatically changed the ways we think and interact with the world. From our ability to solve math problems in our heads to our penmanship to developing critical thinking skills, our environment has changed us.

The focus of the talk, however, was the importance of reading skills on the mind. He discussed a study that found how crucial reading is to the formation of key skills on young people’s social skills. Cardinal Tagle expressed how “deep reading” develops the brain, especially in increasing our brain capacity in the areas of imagination, analogy, inference, analysis, and contemplation. It is also crucial to the development of empathy.

Cardinal Tagle spoke about the benefits of reading:

It’s not in our genes. You have to be taught and you have to develop it — the relationship of a character to a vowel, to a sound and then with constant practice. the connection of the different letters to form a word, and then the word you have to relate to your experience, and then you use your imagination. That’s reading. And through constant practice, the mind — they say there is a brain circuit that develops with time, and with constant use of that skill of reading.

Vatican Media’s Sr. Bernadette Mary Reis, FSP, wrote a report on the address, highlighting the Cardinal’s message about the importance of reading in our present age of social media for critical thinking and developing empathy. She writes:

If we do not understand what is taking place in the development of our young people, it will result in a future of people who do not know to think critically and a “generation without empathy”. When applying this to our schools, the Cardinal asked his audience, “does reading get the attention it deserves?” If not, this will have an “impact on the type of society” in the future. “Are we developing citizens who will develop a critical intelligence coupled with empathy for those they do not know?” the Cardinal asked the FABC delegates.

He concluded his talk by encouraging Catholic leaders to see social media as an opening and opportunity for evangelization, and the need for Catholics to engage with the world through digital media.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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