Catholics Reflect on 10 Years of the Good, Bad and Ugly of Social Media

DECADE IN REVIEW: Three Catholic new-media users discuss social media and how their own responses to it have changed.

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Millennial Catholic author and speaker Katie Prejean was an early adopter of social media: Only about 5% of Americans used Facebook when she created an account in 2005. At the time, the platform seemed like a place for having real conversation with friends and sharing photo albums from a trip or activity.

Since she joined, much has changed, particularly over the past 10 years, when social media exploded in popularity and brought drastic new challenges and opportunities to individuals, societies and the globe. And Catholics who were early adopters of social media have matured in their own reflections about social media and its role in the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Prejean said the neighborhood feel of social media started to disappear as use of it exploded and people became more concerned with “brand building” and less about sharing one’s “authentic self.”

Still, Prejean said places like Facebook and Twitter have been opportunities to build real and authentic relationships. Prejean credits social media for forming those friendships. She also met her future husband, Tommy McGrady, through Facebook, as their online correspondence developed from friendship to a long-distance courtship.

“Now we’re happily married with a child,” she said. “I definitely think [social media] is a place where fostering human connection can happen. But I also think it can be a complete total dumpster fire and hellscape.”

Over the past decade, scientists have been busily doing research to come to understand the effects of social media.

According to Pew Research, fewer than half of all Americans used any social media in 2010. Now 72% of all Americans use some kind of social media, with YouTube (owned by Google) and Facebook as the reigning social kings. Pew said 73% of U.S. adults use YouTube, while 69% of U.S. adults use Facebook. Pew found 74% of Facebook users visit the site daily, and nearly half visit several times per day.

Many studies have emerged showing that social media has had profound impacts, both negative or positive, affecting stress, mood, anxiety, depression, sleep, addiction, self-worth, well-being, relationships and the tendency to experience envy and loneliness.

But, overall, researchers have found the differences depend on a lot of factors, such as the kind of platform used, frequency of exposure and for what length of time, with the user’s own psychological makeup, sex and age adding contributing variables to how social media affects a person.

A study of 1,500 youth (ages 14-24), conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health and the Young Health Movement, found YouTube was rated most positive for its effects on overall health and well-being, with Instagram ranked as most negative.

A 2018 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found “significant reductions in loneliness and depression” as well as reduced anxiety and fear of missing out by reducing — rather than eliminating — social-media exposure and suggested limiting use to 30 minutes per day.


Gen-X Opt-In, Opt-Out

Back in 2010, Matthew Warner was an avid early adopter of social media, particularly as a tool for evangelization.

“At first it was exciting,” he said. “I was part of the crowd that would go out and say, ‘Look, it’s a tool; tools are neutral. They can be used for good; they can be used for bad. … The apostles and the saints always use whatever media was available to them. It’s time to share the Gospel and evangelize.’”

“I think, looking back on it, that was somewhat naïve,” he said.

Warner’s observations about the nature of social media and its engineered design to get people to stay constantly connected, clicking links on advertising so people could buy more products, made him realize that social-media platforms are not “a dumb tool” like a newspaper or a hammer. Some platforms are “fairly harmless” — but others, not so much.

Today, the Gen-X Catholic evangelist and founder of Flocknote, a platform to keep churches close to their flocks through email and text message, has personally unplugged from Facebook and most social media.

“Life has gotten so much better since then,” he said.

Warner said he is a younger member of the Gen-X generation, which grew up without social media and then “adopted it into our lives in all sorts of awkward ways.”

“They are all operating with their own purpose,” he said.

“These are more like machines with people behind them that are manipulating us in some way,” he also said. “They’re designed to do a certain thing and that thing is not necessarily good for us.”

Several former Facebook executives have admitted that the platform, with its flashing lights and sound pings, is designed to trigger bodily chemicals related to people’s desire to know information.

Warner said the overall positive or negative impact of each social-media platform on a person has to be distinguished from the impact that others have, and he clarified he did not want to paint them all with a broad brush. Still, he was not comfortable with “feeling like we’ve got to be connected all the time” and wanted to spend his time in better ways.

And he is not convinced that the enthusiasm over social media has been good for evangelization overall. People are tempted to think they can go about “evangelizing a thousand people” with a post as a shortcut, but the real, lasting impact of sharing the Gospel is found in direct relationships.

“I don’t think social media as a whole has helped us with our most important relationships,” he said, and it has given an easy way out of real evangelization, which is found in doing the hard thing of speaking with friends and family members over the phone or in person about Jesus Christ.

“What evangelization needs is more people willing to do the hard things,” he said.


A Golden Age, With Cautions

For Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, comparing the differences between now and 10 years ago, he believes the Church is in “a golden age of evangelization and apologetics.”

“This has been a tremendous boon to the Church and has aided our evangelical mission extraordinarily,” Bishop Barron said. “I’m old enough to remember the ancient period prior to social media, and I can only smile when I think of the lack of Catholic content then and how comparatively difficult it was to find materials, articles and basic information about Catholicism.”

Indeed, the social-media platforms have allowed Catholics across distances to collaborate on evangelization and share still images and live video to educate and engage people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Still, the bishop, who is on the tail end of the baby-boom generation, said the “jury is still out” on whether social media’s impact has seen the positive fruits outweigh the negative.

“I won’t gainsay anything I just said about the positive value of social media, but I also do not hesitate to observe just how awful they can be,” he said. “The vitriol, character assassination and just plain hatred that one comes across every day on the social media is massively disheartening.”

Bishop Barron noted that a person who wanted to send a “vitriolic missive to an editor” before the days of social media had to go through a lot of work that may have ended up with the editor just pitching the letter in the trash rather than publishing it.

“Today, anyone in his mom’s basement can dash off a hate-filled message and, with one press of a button, post it on social media, where it sits, unedited, for all the world to see,” he said, adding it can culminate in a mob-like mentality with “the collective goal of totally destroying the person.”

Bishop Barron noted the extremism of one side feeds into the extremism on the other side on social media. And in the Church, the bishop said, “this divisiveness has been exacerbated terribly by the social media” functioning as a scandal to people’s ability to embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


Strengthening the Church’s Witness

Bishop Barron said he believes the bishops should consider exercising their authority in the digital sphere “just as John Paul II, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, called for the bishops to exercise greater supervision of universities operating under the aegis of the Church.”

“There are, to be blunt, a disconcerting number of such people on social media who are trading in hateful, divisive speech, often deeply at odds with the theology of the Church and who are, sadly, having a powerful impact on the people of God,” he said.

“I do think that the shepherds of the Church, those entrusted with supervising the teaching office, can and should point out when people on social media are harming the Body of Christ.”

Bishop Barron suggested that it may be time for bishops “to introduce something like a mandatum for those who claim to teach the Catholic faith online, whereby a bishop affirms that the person is teaching within the full communion of the Church.”

At the same time, he encouraged the rising generation, “who have social media in their blood and their fingers,” to delve deeply into the Church’s intellectual and spiritual tradition and dedicate their use of these technologies.

Warner stressed that Catholics should look at both Benedict XVI’s and Pope Francis’ teachings on communications and make sure to take seriously both their encouragements and their cautions about social media and the need to uphold the dignity of the human person on these platforms.

Prejean said the key for her and others on social media will be finding that right balance, to know when to use it and, importantly, when to turn it off, keeping sight of the most important things in the life God has given them.

“Living life in front of you is always better, always better, than anything you will ever do online,” she said.

“I would also give the following spiritual advice,” Bishop Barron said. “Before you say or write anything on social media — whether you are publishing your own material or responding to someone else — ask this simple question: Do these words of mine constitute an act of love?”

 Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.