Earlier this summer, I was invited to speak about technology with youth attending the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference in Anchorage. With several hundred teens and youth workers convened at Lumen Christi High School the ever-present digital networks and their encroachment into spiritual space was a popular topic, inspiring lively discussion. The intersection of Generations X and Y with Millennial culture sometimes challenge perceptions: teens consider telephone calls intrusive while adults view texting as less than ideal for relaying anything beyond quick details. Local youth ministers recall chiding teens for scrolling through smartphones during Mass, only to realize it’s a mobile missal.
For past generations our default social settings were verbal, in-person exchanges, augmented by technology. The migration to these devices as mediators of personal and professional encounters has been seismic. Our teens are unlikely to apply for jobs with printed paper applications, and may falter to leave a voicemail which cogently summarizes their reason for calling in the first place. Both well-composed speech and spontaneity are replaced by the buffer of anonymity and editing.
This pivot towards technology has an impact visible to those who serve the young people in our churches. Father Mike Schmitz, addressing Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) on the crisis of evangelizing youth: “Twenty years ago, our goal was to introduce the person of Jesus Christ. Now we must begin by introducing the very concept of a relationship and working from there.”
With parents, grandparents and teachers acutely aware of this shift in an observational or philosophical sense, the teens clamor clearly for two things they feel elude them: true solitude and authentic friendship. ACYC attendees directly named digital devices as threatening their interior life and distorting their social connections. They perceive their peers as inauthentic and distracted in face-to-face exchanges, leaving little room for the vulnerability and generosity required to build emotional intimacy. The exhaustion of perpetual “image management” chips away at their serenity. It seems that the refining and reshaping qualities of social discourse is lost — in the perpetual cybernoise, the loudest voices become tone deaf while the quieter ones recede into silence.
Youth outlined their frustration at finding themselves in groups of teens who prefer to share photos or jokes via text message and third party websites even when physically assembled together. Their peers are relegated to mere audience members, with crude humor and vulgarity pervading many of the online hangouts. The cerebral effects of being “wired” run the gamut from time mismanagement to addiction.
To be sure, today’s young adults enter a world which requires a degree of digital literacy. We do them no favors by denying the proper role of machines. However, the half-alive quality of mobile internet, the narcissism of social media platforms, and the allure of virtual “fellowship,” these are dubious tools to be wielded with restraint and maturity. The rightful desires of privacy and dignity are innate, but many teens struggle for the vocabulary to name these boundaries — as if they grieve for something they’ve never quite had. The deadening effect on the intellect and soul cut off from the vitality and unpredictability of human contact is undeniable. The same cannot be said for the child deprived an iPad.
The recent words of Pope Francis recognize both the omnipresence of digital accessories and the implications of their overuse: “We’re talking about two different things. The modality and the content. If the way is a way that hurts the soul which is being attached to a computer. It’s curious. So many families, fathers and mothers, tell me, ‘We are at the dinner table with our children and they have their cellphones and …’ It’s another world. It’s true that the virtual language is a reality that we cannot deny. We must take it on the good path because it is a progress of humanity, but when this takes us away from communal life, from family life, from social life and even from sports, from art and I remain hooked to the computer, this is a psychological illness, for sure.”
Youth are aware of the trivial and self-destructive nature of many social media exchanges yet describe being unable to cast off the devices without external guidance. They report feeling overexposed — burdened by the expectation of constant availability. Many teens recalled with relish occasions at which they lasted five or six hours without access to a phone screen or video games. They described it as a welcome novelty, usually due to an organized group activity. Adults and occasions which require them to put away or surrender their phones for a time are seen as a true source of relief.
The stakes are high — as the silence needed to ponder questions both great and small is swallowed, what becomes of the restless teen heart? Spiritual sloth and vanity turn to self-loathing, and the momentous, identity-forming years of adolescence vanish into a glossy portal. At a startling pace, a generation is left staring into a personalized mirror, aching for a response.
The writer lives in Wasilla and is a regular contributor to the Catholic Anchor. Her articles have also appeared in news outlets such as Catholic News Agency and National Catholic Register, among others.