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Be Weavers of Communion on Social Media

"Hacia una plena presencia" -Reflexión pastoral sobre la interacción en las Redes Sociales

Idaho Catholic Register (Stock Photo)

Deacon Scott Pearhill


“The question is no longer whether to engage with the digital world, but how . . .” says a recent document from the Vatican Dicastery for Communication.

“Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media” was published on May 28, the Solemnity of Pentecost, and is meant to breathe the freshness of the Holy Spirit into our conversations on the internet. The document, which was signed by its lay prefect Paolo Ruffini and its Argentine secretary Monsignor Lucio A. Ruiz, begins with the sober observation, “Young people – as well as older generations – are asking to be met where they are, including on social media, because the digital world is ‘a significant part of young people’s identity and way of life.’”

Rebuilding the “logic of community” when engaging with social media and rejecting the “logic of exclusion” is a central message of the new document. “Towards Full Presence” takes lessons from the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) to encourage Catholics to “live in the digital world as ‘loving neighbors’ who are genuinely present to and attentive to each other on our common journey along ‘digital highways.’”

The Vatican document observes that many people give voice to their wounds and fears on social media, their experience of division, anger and isolation.

Pete Espil, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in Twin Falls who works with many teenagers, often asks his new young clients, “What do you think causes most problems for teenagers today?” The number one response is social media. “Social media creates a lot of drama. It causes people to compare themselves with others,” said Espil, adding that relationships with friends can feel like “everything” for some teens, and social media can easily rupture those relationships. Espil said, “Excessive use of social media and other screen time activities can disconnect youth and adults from other people.”

One pervasive form of harmful digital communication is cyber-bullying. On their website, the US Government explains cyberbullying includes

“sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.” The Government site describes the most common places where cyberbullying occurs and starts with the social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. The list also includes text messaging and messaging apps, online forums, chat rooms and gaming communities.

Idaho Catholic Register (Stock Photo)

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in April and May of 2022, found 46 percent of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 have experienced some form of cyberbullying, and 28 percent of teens have experienced multiple forms of cyberbullying.

Matthew Geske, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), and Clinical Counseling Director for Catholic Charities of Idaho explained depression and withdrawal from one’s social communities can be an outcome of excessive social media usage. “The things I look for as a clinician to determine if a person is having an issue with excessive social media or gaming use is the presence of depression and anxiety, lack of sleep, difficulty being around people versus spending time being online, complaints about lack of focus, not dating, not driving, avoiding adult responsibilities, use of mood altering substances, lying, and not feeling close to others including family,” said Geske “Social media can be a coping mechanism for stress; taken to extremes, it can lead to addiction,” said Geske.

We know that children and youth are using social media, but what about adults? The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a non-profit research center affiliated with Georgetown University, conducted a survey this year concerning Catholic media usage in the United States. Respondents were asked about which social media sites they use. The study, “Catholic Media Usage 2023,” found 77 percent of adult Catholics have profiles on Facebook, followed by Instagram (44 percent), Twitter (32 percent), TikTok (27 percent), Pinterest (23 percent), LinkedIn (21 percent), and Snapchat (20 percent).

A 2022 study of adult social media usage, led by researchers from four universities, including Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, confirmed a strong correlation between depression and social media usage. The “COVID States Project” surveyed adults who showed no signs of depression before the pandemic. But when surveyed again later, the study found those who used Snapchat, Facebook, and TikTok were more likely to report symptoms of depression.

Douglas Alles, Catholic Charities of Idaho Executive Director said, “I believe it has played a key role in the high rates of anxiety and depression we are seeing in clients who come to Catholic Charities. We have the highest rates of suicide in the United States since World War II, in no small part due to the influence of social media.”

Geske notes, “As a culture, we are losing the ability to communicate directly with individuals; we’re relying more on digital intermediary forms.” Geske recommends regular fasting from social media. “Personally, I try to fast from technology one day a week, usually on Sunday, and devote that time to family. It’s a sabbath from technology.” But he notes that everyone is different and a fast may not be possible for some. “We need to be thoughtful about our use of anything, whether it be social media or alcohol. Everything in moderation,” Geske said.

How should Catholics relate to those on social media platforms who speak from their isolation, depression and woundedness, who express hostility and foment division? “Towards Full Presence” states, “We can only see what is going on if we look from the perspective of the wounded man in the parable of the Good Samaritan.”

The Vatican document calls for the “humanization” of social media. “There is an increasingly urgent need to engage social media platforms in a way that goes beyond one’s silos, exiting the group of one’s ‘sames’ in order to meet others,” thereby enabling Christians on social media to be “weavers of communion.”

The document says, “The Christian style should be reflective, not reactive,” and recommends several tools for building a more reflective social media space. Two of the document’s recommendations include avoiding caustic reactions, which “give permission and legitimacy” for others to do the same, and asking if our social media style is the “fruit of deep and truthful communication.” “Towards Full Communion” calls for Christian users of social media to be mindful of posting content that deepens prejudices, intensifies conflict and deepens divisions. “We Christians should be known for our availability to listen, to discern before acting, to treat all people with respect, to respond with a question rather than a judgment, to remain silent rather than trigger a controversy and to be ‘quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger’ (James 1:19).”

“Towards Full Communion” also recommends bearing witness to the faith with joy and gentleness. The document says Christian engagement with social media bears “witness

to the joy that the Lord gives to us. And this joy always shines brightly against a backdrop of grateful memory. Telling others about the reason for our hope and doing it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15) is a sign of gratitude. It is the response of one who, through gratitude, is made docile to the Spirit and therefore free.”

In contrast to an aggressive and reactive social media style, the document recommends a “response of one who by the grace of humility does not put himself or herself in the foreground and thus facilitates the encounter with Christ who said, ‘Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart’ (Matthew 11:29).” The document notes, “It is in this sense that we can better understand the words of the great John the Baptist, the first witness of Christ: ‘He must increase; I must decrease’ (John 3:30) . . . We can spread the Gospel only by forging a communion that unites us in Christ. We do this by following Jesus’ example of interacting with others.”

The avoidance of proselytizing is also addressed. “We are not present in social media to ‘sell a product.’ We are not advertising, but communicating life, the life that was given to us in Christ. Therefore, every Christian must be careful not to proselytize, but give witness.”

“Towards Full Communion” recommends “Following the logic of the Gospel,” in which a well-chosen question will awaken the search in the other’s heart. “The rest” say the authors of the Vatican document, “is the hidden work of God.”

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