In a restaurant recently, my wife and I couldn’t help but notice a family with four young children at the table across from us. As soon as everyone settled into their chairs, each child, including the youngest, who stayed in his stroller, quickly pulled out a technological device.
Totally focused on their technology, the family only spoke to each other about what they wanted to eat. The parents pointed to the menu and asked the children, "Is that what you want to eat?" Each child would nod or say a quick "Yes," without unfixing his or her eyes from the little screen and without thumbs and fingers missing a beat.
Each child continued like this, quite absorbed, even during the course of the meal — except to show their father something on their screens.
These scenes are all too common these days.
Earlier this year, during an appearance on Johnnette Benkovic’s Women of Grace show on EWTN, Father Wade Menezes of the Fathers of Mercy related how a new bride was telling him that she and her husband finally had to make a rule to have no iPhones present during dinner because they constantly checked their phones instead of talking to one another.
These things are "drawing us away from that personalism," Father Menezes said. "What we’re lacking here is personalism, the I-thou relationship that Blessed John Paul II talked about so much."
Father Menezes pointed out that the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes (On the Church in the Modern World) "states very clearly that if we’re not careful this modern technology can entrap us from the things that are important. So while loving the technology and seeing what it is, we simultaneously acknowledge the technology can lead us to become self-centered and even go so far as lead us into evil."
As Gaudium et Spes states, "For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential."
Register blogger Matthew Warner, founder of Fallible Blogma and CEO of flockNote, agrees about the all-consuming presence of electronic devices. "They have quietly stolen the idle moments of our day — those quiet, pivotal moments that happen in between the things we do all day," Warner says. "They used to give us a moment to pause and reflect. A moment to pray; a moment to think of somebody else; a moment to rest; a moment to prepare for the next thing that we do — a moment to be present.
"But now we habitually reach for our gadgets without even thinking every time one of these idle moments hits. And just as quickly, our minds have been sucked away to a far-off place."
Warner says users must be mindful of proper usage.
"We have to be careful that we remember social media and smartphones and the like are just tools," he says. "It’s how we use them that makes them right or wrong. They can just as easily help our spiritual lives and bring us closer to other people if we use them correctly."
Adds Johnnette Benkovic of Women of Grace, "Technology is, of course, morally neutral. But its use often is not."
"With the advance of social networking, there is a temptation to substitute online contact for the face-to-face interaction so necessary for the growth of personal relationships and true friendship," she says. "While television ads may spoof on the equation of techno ‘friends’ to ‘real’ ones, the point is not lost: Friendship, relationship, interaction and communication are being redefined in light of cultural trends made possible through technology."
And people lose in the process. This month an article in Newsweek — "Is the Web Driving Us Mad?" — noted that Internet use may increase depression and ADHD, according to recent studies. It also noted that studies have found "the brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts."
The article included MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, as a source: "People tell her that their phones and laptops are the ‘place for hope’ in their lives, the ‘place where sweetness comes from.’ Children describe mothers and fathers unavailable in profound ways, present and yet not there at all. ‘Mothers are now breastfeeding and bottle-feeding their babies as they text,’ she told the American Psychological Association last summer. ‘A mother made tense by text messages is going to be experienced as tense by the child. And that child is vulnerable to interpreting that tension as coming from within the relationship with the mother. This is something that needs to be watched very closely.’ She added, ‘Technology can make us forget important things we know about life.’"
As Pope Benedict XVI stresses in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), "As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God."
Father Robert Barron, rector of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, agrees that technology "does carry that shadow of locking people in their own world. There’s always a danger of certain superficiality and lack of personal comment."
While he uses YouTube to discuss cultural trends and share Church teaching — and people can comment on his videos, prompting good conversations — there’s no personal interaction. "Words on a screen are answered by other words on a screen," he says. "I get how problematic that can be."
"But I do believe the positive outweighs the negative," he adds.
He says men in their 20s, 30s and 40s are the biggest group to use YouTube, and they are "notoriously hard to reach for the Church."
"I love the fact I can use YouTube and new media to reach this unreachable group," he says. "I think we can have a spirited conversation around the faith."
Father Barron also thinks that, at its best, the Internet is akin to the Mystical Body of the Church, a way of linking people together. In minutes after posting a YouTube video, he gets emails from viewers all over the world.
"I love that part of it," he says. "I can be in conversations with them."
However, Father Barron is in favor of limiting kids’ time on the computer and other technology, "especially with iPhones and texting that can draw you into a narcissistic and navel-gazing world," he says. "If I were a parent, I’d put severe limits on that. Prefer the person standing next to you to texting."
He emphasizes, "If you’re in the presence of a real human being, you should never be using this technology."
Another priest in the media, Father Jonathan Morris, agrees. "On a very practical level, I suggest that we use technology and social communications to plan, to coordinate and to encourage, but never use social media or technology to try to solve a relationship issue, because they (technology devices) usually create more relationship issues than they solve," says the director of the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM Radio, who is also a religion and ethics contributor for the Fox News Channel; he also works in the New York archdiocesan communications office with Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Father Morris, whose new book is God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God’s Help, says personal communication is best because it’s how God designed us to relate to one another, however challenging: "Good communication is difficult because it requires us to place ourselves in communion with the other person."
Consequently, he recommends media be used "in order to pass on information, to coordinate, to organize, to educate. That’s a wonderful opportunity we can’t pass up."
Warner has several suggestions to get back to personalism on a daily basis.
"The way we fix this involves some discipline, of course: by limiting our use and exposure to healthy levels," he says. "But more so, it requires a deliberateness of use. We can use such devices to enhance our relationships and bring us closer to the ones we love. We can use them to evangelize and to bring people closer to God. We can use them to be more personal with people. But we have to use them that way and with that deliberate intention. Otherwise, it’s easy to let the precious moments of your day get swept away and wasted."
When people spend too much time watching TV and using technology, "it’s probably because they’ve forgotten about the endless — and far more interesting — adventures sitting right in front of their face," Warner says.
"We just need to constantly remind each other of how amazing the life is that’s been put right in front of our noses," he concludes. "And the most interesting and worthwhile parts of this amazing life involve loving the people we’re privileged to have sitting right in front of us."
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.