Dear Pope Francis,
Increasingly, social media dominates our lives, so it’s not surprising that when you took questions from youth in Sarajevo, someone asked about social media. For better or for worse, ministry will continue to make use of social media. When it comes to things like the New Evangelization, effective use of social media is helpful, because thousands of people can be reached with minimal work; all it takes is a like, a share or a re-tweet.
But where social media becomes problematic is when we forget that it is a means, not the end in itself. When we treat popularity on social media as the goal, we reduce the events of our lives to the fodder to post and get likes, followers and retweets. We share the updates about how well our lives are going. Perhaps the worst of these is the ‘humble-brag’, when someone brags about a success by trying to hide it behind a complaint. When we turn our lives in the means to achieve social media notoriety, the value of the experience is determined by the online response. Suddenly, my trip to Europe last summer is no longer valuable because I experienced personal growth, thought more deeply about important issues, and accomplished something on my bucket list; it is only valuable for boosting my online persona as someone who is spontaneous and adventurous, and well-travelled as a result. Instead of allowing that event, and other life changing events, to be a spring board, launching me forward, being hung up on the social media response keeps me focused on myself and where I am, creating (perhaps unknowingly) a rut.
Treating social media as the goal leads to doubting my own worth as a person. In the same way that events are valuable insofar as they boost my online persona, I stop treating my self-worth as something inherent, and make it something tied to external factors, how many likes, retweets and followers I have. Social media is just one example of the way people attach their self-worth to externals (think about the people who are obsessed with weighing themselves, the size of their cloths, or how much weight they can lift at the gym).
On this point, I think the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were quite prophetic:
“All who, of their own free choice, make use of these media of communications as readers, viewers or listeners have special obligations. For a proper choice demands that they fully favor those presentations that are outstanding for their moral goodness, their knowledge and their artistic or technical merit. They ought, however, to void those that may be a cause or occasion of spiritual harm to themselves, or that can lead others into danger through base example, or that hinder desirable presentations and promote those that are evil.” (Inter Mirifica: Decree on the Media of Social Communications, 9)
This passage most obviously applies to the classic examples of harmful media, like pornography, and while that it is spiritually harmful, it glosses over the other spiritual harm, like degrading the value of our lives in order to get likes and followers. Perhaps even it is more spiritually harmful when we tie our self-worth so intimately into our social media persona that how we treat ourselves and value our lives is determined by that, because often times we don’t realize we are doing it. We are so used to being to connected via social media that we stop paying attention to how it makes us feel, and the role it has in our lives.
PS: Watch for my next letter, when I’ll pick up this topic again, and talk about the importance of mindfulness and social media.