Social media is well named. It’s media that is truly social, and it is a gift to the Church because it gives us a way to evangelize and reach people who may never step foot in a church.
The flip side is that every opinion, every idea, every belief that anyone has can make its way to social media, even those thoughts, ideas, and attitudes that run contrary to the Gospel of Christ. This fact raises concerns, especially for parents who worry about what their child might see and experience when engaging on social media platforms.
What are followers of Jesus to do with all that social media presents to us and our children? What are followers of Jesus called to contribute to the “sanctification” of social media?
This past Pentecost, the Vatican Dicastery for Communication released a document called Toward Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media. This reflection helps to answer the above questions. Using the parable Jesus told of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37), the document invites us to wonder who our “neighbor” is when it comes to social media interactions, as well as how we are “neighbor” to those we encounter in the digital culture.
On social media, it’s way too easy to pretend to be something or someone we are not. Often, the temptation is to present ourselves as better than we really are, happier than we really are, or some other picture of our ideal selves that we have yet to live up to. If we do that, how can authentic relationships happen?
Another offense against digital authenticity is to hide behind the anonymity social media offers, especially when commenting on religious, cultural, social, or political hot-button issues. When reading or viewing a post that evokes an emotional response, do you take the time to stop and think before adding your two cents’ worth? Do your interactions treat the other as a valued neighbor? Are your comments creating division or inspiring unity?
What the church calls us to in “Toward Full Presence” is giving a living witness within the social media environment. We can help make social media a true place of encounter by being our most authentic selves, by “orienting digital connections towards encountering real persons, forming real relationships and building real community” (No. 24). More than just recreating your own version of the Wednesday Addams dance for TikTok, build connections that are meaningful and holy.
I had a conversation with my sister not long ago. She’s stepmom to twin 11-year-old boys, and we talked about how she and her husband are trying to implement rules for the way the boys use their devices and the internet. They’re not on social media yet, as the legal age for most social media platforms is 13 years old. Their father has talked with them, stressing the importance of communicating with their parents if they ever run across anything inappropriate while online.
I also suggested to her that an “open door” policy when devices are in use might be a good idea. Most importantly, though, is that she and her husband model good, authentic media use themselves if they want their kids to learn it, too.
The Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel are guides for holy living, showing us the qualities needed to live an authentic Christian life. Based on the four cardinal virtues, here are some “Be-Attitudes” for living virtuously and authentically when it comes to social media:
Be PRUDENT in what you post, snap, tweet, share or view. Think before posting or engaging on social media. Is what I’m posting or looking at true? Is it helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind? If it’s not, then rethink your intentions.
Be JUST in your posts and comments, remembering that there are always two sides to a story. Even more important, there is a human person behind every tweet, video or comment, who is loved by God. Ask yourself how your interaction will make that person feel.
Be TEMPERATE in your digital media use. Use technology but don’t let it use you. Use media that builds up people, relationships and community rather than what breaks down.
Be COURAGEOUS in the digital media universe. Stop cyberbullying and stand up for what is right and true. Be the presence of Christ on social media and in the digital culture in which we live.
Sister Hosea Rupprecht, a Daughter of St. Paul, is the associate director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies.