With AirPods tightly nestled in their ears and the faint glow of cellphones lighting their faces, young people today can seem impossible to engage or understand. Parents struggle to communicate, politicians can’t figure them out, and companies compete to guess what makes this generation tick.
Yet a newly released post-synodal exhortation, “Christus Vivit” (“Christ is Alive”), suggests the 82-year-old Pope Francis might just “get it” when it comes to the new generation, especially the potential and dangers of social media.
Social media can “provide an extraordinary opportunity for dialogue, encounter, and exchange between persons, as well as access to information and knowledge,” the pope wrote in a section of the third chapter dedicated to the digital environment.
But, he added, “the digital environment is also one of loneliness, manipulation, exploitation, and violence, even to the extreme case of the ‘dark web.’ Digital media can expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation, and gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.”
So far, that’s nothing revolutionary. It doesn’t take a genius to determine social media platforms contain the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Francis’ intuition, however, goes beyond a mere photograph of existing online dynamics and points to reasons that motivate them, from the loneliness many young people experience to their thirst for a sense of community, from falling into the trap of tribal mentalities on the web to extremism.
More than that, Francis suggests a remedy — a novelty for young people easily dismissed as the “me generation” or “snowflakes” — which combines the tools and zeal of youth with the history and experience of the elderly to create an intergenerational alliance.
Despite being the third-followed world leader on Twitter, after U.S. President Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Francis reportedly does not own a cellphone, watch television, or engage directly with social media.
His new apostolic exhortation, released April 2, could be described as a “listening exercise” harvested from an Oct. 3-28, 2018, Synod of Bishops on “Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” which included youth aged 16-29.
From the event, Francis gained key insight into what is commonly described as the online “filter bubble.” Algorithms that animate social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram use “likes, reads and retweets” to determine user preferences and to suggest content the user might like, while excluding content he might dislike.
The result, according to the pontiff’s analysis, is that social media consumers can become trapped in a like-minded environment where they are never challenged.
In Francis’ words, “The way many platforms work often ends up favoring encounter between persons who think alike, shielding them from debate.”
The proliferation of “fake news,” growing polarization, and the ever-blurring line between what qualifies as “offensive” and what’s acceptable can all find a common root in this form of online tribalization.
According to author and speaker Katie Prejean McGrady, 28, who took part in an English-language group during a pre-synod gathering of 300 youth last March, Francis’ words of warning regarding social media shows the attention of a “good father.”
“The algorithm knows what you prefer to see,” she said in an April 4 interview. “Essentially what happens is that we are all just rounding the same cul-de-sac with the people who agree with us.”
While on one side this helps create a sense of community, it can also lead people to go “into attack mode” when confronted with something different or critical, she added.
McGrady admitted that she also tends to block people who engage in debates or even “snarky” comments.
“On the one hand maybe I am protecting myself, on the other maybe I’m also avoiding conflict because I’ve forgotten how to have these disagreements and I have become so homogenized in my views,” she said.
So-called “Catholic Twitter” is no stranger to these polarizing mentalities, as it is often the preferred platform for opposing views on the Church.
“Hashtag Catholic twitter is a thing. Not only do we joke about it on twitter, but there is a community that is formed there,” McGrady said, while adding that “we must make sure we are not reading the same stuff that placates our own opinions.”
Despite its intrinsic flaws, social media fulfills a deep-seated desire for community that is particularly poignant for many young people today.
In his letter, Francis speaks of a “digital migration,” where many young people withdraw from family life and values to enter “a world of loneliness and self-invention,” where they often end up feeling “rootless.”
This is where the elderly come in. In a section of the document called “Taking risks together,” Francis encourages a collaboration between the old, keepers of history, and makers of dreams, and the young who have the energy and the life to bring them to fruition.
“If we journey together, young and old, we can be firmly rooted in the present, and from here, revisit the past and look to the future,” Francis said.
“That is why it is a good thing to let older people tell their long stories,” he added, which are “the dreams of old people — yet are often full of rich experiences, of eloquent symbols, of hidden messages.”
In this section, Francis seems to predict the criticism that the 299-paragraph document may be too long to appeal to a young audience with limited attention span.
“These stories take time to tell, and we should be prepared to listen patiently and let them sink in, even though they are much longer than what we are used to in social media,” he said.
It’s through the combinations of new technologies and old wisdom, with the intercession of Mary, “the influencer of God,” that Francis sees the path for the future, born from the covenant of the two loneliest demographics, which need be lonely no more.
Claire Giangravè is an assistant editor and faith and culture correspondent at Crux, a partner of Angelus.
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