What some see as a tidal wave of TMI, text for “too much information,” others see as a huge blessing. In fact, Archbishop Fulton Sheen would be pleased by the social media tools at our disposal to spread the Gospel and present the beauty and truth of Catholicism to the popular culture, observes Rozann Carter, who manages social-media communications for Word on Fire Ministries, a Catholic media ministry founded by Father Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“We’ve got to be there. It is the primary means by which people get their news these days, whether it’s through Facebook, Twitter, blogs — they check it as much as their email,” says Carter.
Since employing social-media tools, Word on Fire Ministries is reaching a wider audience of the 18- to 25-year-old demographic, of which Carter belongs. Father Barron’s postings on YouTube generate a lot of response from the college-age group who are looking for the truth and want to be fed something of value that resonates with them, says Carter.
“We established our Facebook page a year ago and can no longer accept friend requests because we reached our limit. So we set up a Facebook fan page, and that number has increased exponentially,” she says. “I would give social media sole responsibility for that type of increase — and that’s really exciting for the ministry.”
With more than 640 million active Facebook users who share more than seven billion pieces of content weekly, 175 million registered Twitter users, 100 million-plus LinkedIn users, and millions more bloggers, social media is definitely the modern-day public square. The sheer rate at which these social media are growing — 100% to 250% or more annually — would make St. Paul relish the thought of evangelizing today’s culture.
“Right now, we have more capacity and ability to communicate and connect with people than ever before in the history of mankind. That’s gotta be something Catholics get excited about,” asserts Matt Warner, author of FallibleBlogma.com, creator of Tweet Catholic and founder of flockNote.com, a new networking site that allows parishes, dioceses or organizations to better communicate with their members. Warner also blogs at NCRegister.com. “While the Church might be a little slower to jump on board with the latest trends, that’s a mark of her wisdom,” he adds. “But it should also be a mark of her passion and dedication to the Gospel that she enthusiastically embraces any good and moral way to communicate and relate to people more effectively. As Catholics, it’s our job to promote the good. To find God there. To be the light there.”
The CatholicMom.com blog, created by Lisa Hendey in Fresno, Calif., has created a vast community of Catholics who share ideas, discuss faith and cultural topics, and support each other in prayer. Unlike the moms of the past who met in kitchens and parks, social networking provides a means for moms today — many of whom are working, to meet on their time and connect with other women who they may never meet in person — who share the joys and challenges of everyday life.
“My preference with all of these things is that we use them to facilitate personal relationships and to more deeply connect with one another,” says Hendey. “I really think that the relationships that I’ve built up in these venues are true friendships that bring me spiritual support. When they ask me to pray for them, they’re very much a part of my prayer life. When I have a chance to meet these people in person, it’s a natural feeling, like I’ve known them for years.”
As a webmaster for her parish, St. Anthony of Padua in Fresno, Hendey uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to distribute parish information in various ways that help the 5,000-family church connect with one another and get established in the community.
“It’s beneficial to our parishioners because it’s so big and you’ll never meet everyone, so they can connect on Facebook,” says Hendey.
“I believe the Church has connected with these emerging technologies and recognizes both the vast potential but also the need to help Catholics grasp these tools with discipline, authenticity and virtue.”
Social-media advocates acknowledge the fact that there can be too much to “follow,” that we can be gluttons for information, that online relationships can replace deeper, more meaningful relationships, or lead one into sinful lifestyles. But that’s just the adults.
Mary Kay Hoal, founder of Yoursphere, a safe social-networking site for kids, is concerned with how the younger generation is using social media.
According to Forrester Research, Millennials, the teenage and 20-something demographic, represent the largest percentage of users currently participating in social media, she notes, and the fastest-growing subsegment of online users is children 11 and younger.
“Social media provides all of us, particularly tweens and teens, with what I call the ‘me’ media (MEdia): Look at me. See me. Acknowledge me,” says Hoal. “When ‘me’ becomes the focus, there is the subsequent natural focus on oneself and not on others. The traditional understanding of friendship and what it means changes in the social MEdia world. They aren’t typically authentic.”
Social media and its very public, viral nature, make it easier for everyone to showcase poor decisions.
Parents need to be educated and involved in their children’s online choices, says Hoal, and kids need to learn the importance of responsible digital citizenship by understanding online privacy and by participating in age-appropriate social networks and activities.
Parents can take the approach that it doesn’t exist and close the blinds or they can accompany their kids and teach them how to use it from a perspective of the theological virtues, suggests Maria Knuth, a consecrated woman with Regnum Christi who works with youth at Immaculate Conception Academy in Wakefield, R.I. The onslaught of media images coming at them from so many new sources has a huge impact on youth, especially girls, she notes.
“The biggest difference I see in working with high-school students is if the parents are involved and trying to do something,” she says.
“Many times, parents will give them unlimited access on their phones, BlackBerries, iPads — there are second-graders who have iPads. That means they have unlimited access to the Internet.”
Hoal says Catholics are wise to heed the advice of Pope Benedict XVI, who said in advance of World Communications Day that the Internet and social media are gifts that we should all endeavor to utilize as long as we use them to support the dignity and respect of the human person.
He cautions us to be mindful of the dangers for adults and children if new media is not used properly: “I would encourage all people of good will who are active in the emerging environment of digital communication to commit themselves to promoting a culture of respect, dialogue and friendship.”
Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.