Communication is essential to the mission of the Catholic Church. In modern times, this includes digital communications. Every Pope in recent times has spoken and written about the need for the Church to engage modern society through all forms of communication. Today, we see Pope Francis using Twitter and other social media to share the Gospel message, and many other Catholic leaders and organizations engaging with digital media. Digital media are a gift from God, to be placed in the service of the Church to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. As a tool for evangelization, modern times have given the Church an unprecedented ability to reach out to people around the world. This is important for us to remember as we deal with the challenges that digital media also create in our lives.
We approach digital media, including social media, from the perspective of two personal actions: what we watch, and what we say.
What we watch
We make decisions every day about the media we consume: music, television, Web, DVD, movies, concerts. The way we receive these media is increasingly digital, and increasingly mobile. It’s common now to see people in public spaces watching digital media on their smartphones. Because of this mobility, people are spending more time consuming media than ever before.
Media consumption is formative. What we choose to watch forms us as human beings. Repetitive exposure to messages has an effect on how we think and what decisions we make. It ultimately impacts how we behave. This is especially true for our children and young adults, who are major consumers of digital media and targets of the corporations marketing products online to them.
Choosing what to watch is a moral decision. Catholic morality applies to what we watch. Ask this question: Is what I’m watching making me a better person, or not? Is it bringing me closer to God, and to being the person God wants me to be? We need to form our consciences to guide us to make positive decisions in the moment.
Pornography is a threat to our humanity. Pornography and the sins behind it have been with us for a long time. However, modern technology has made its delivery personal, private, and effortless. Modern society has also lowered the bar on the definition of what is acceptable, so that it is now common to see pornographic scenes on cable TV, in movies, and on YouTube. This requires a heightened level of vigilance from us, particularly as parents.
Children need supervision and formation with digital media. Children should not have smartphones, tablets, or computers in their bedrooms. Keep those devices in visible spaces where there is adult supervision. Children need age-appropriate moral formation about digital media — and it needs to start young. By middle school, most children have access to smart phones and the Internet, and many are on social media. This is a cultural force that is impossible for parents to control fully. Moral formation when they are young is critical: young adults need a Christian framework in which to make personal decisions about digital media.
What we say
Many forms of digital media are intentionally social (Facebook) or allow online interaction (YouTube). This has opened a new venue for communication that is immediate, permanent, and public. Everyone has the ability to participate, including children.
Adults must model good behavior. Adults must bring a mature spirituality and moral framework to their online presence. The world is watching what we say online, including our children, and including God.
Social media can support our works of mercy. The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy form the core of our action as Catholics. Our social media posts should build people up and enhance the work that we do as disciples of Jesus Christ. Principles of Christian charity must guide our tone and content.
Digital media have a role in formation and learning. Formation of youth and adults, both academic and spiritual, has a growing dependence on digital media. This includes using social media as a platform for communication between students and teachers, and as a way to interact with the world outside the classroom. We have an opportunity to extend the reach of our teaching and catechesis more deeply into our communities with social media.
Catholic faith gives us a strong foundation for engaging with digital media today. It helps us to make good moral choices in what we do and say online, and it gives us the courage to adopt new methods in our action as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.