The Pope and Facebook

The head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, has encouraged Christians to get involved in online social networks, but at the same time he’s warned users, especially young people, about the dangers of superficial online relationships taking the place of real life interaction.

In his message for the 45th World Day of Social Communications, he talked about the new horizons that are now open that were until recently were unimaginable.

The papal message, entitled Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age was released by the Vatican yesterday, the 24th of January.

Who is my ‘neighbour’ in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world ‘other’ than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.

I reckon he’s pretty well spot on. We’re in danger of losing ourselves amongst everything from Facebook to Twitter and so much more.

It can be easy to create an online persona that doesn’t really exist. We can chase online “friends” who will never really be there when we’re going through tough times and who we won’t get the opportunity to support in their time of need. Online friends are unlikely to hold us accountable or move us forward on the journey of life.

I love the opportunity to communicate with people all over the world, and I must admit that I really value some of the online friendships I’ve developed, but I’m very aware that I can’t let online relationships rob me of real life relationships with those who need me to be present in their lives.

Young people in particular are experiencing this change in communication, with all the anxieties, challenges and creativity typical of those open with enthusiasm and curiosity to new experiences in life. Their ever greater involvement in the public digital forum, created by the so-called social networks, helps to establish new forms of interpersonal relations, influences self-awareness and therefore inevitably poses questions not only of how to act properly, but also about the authenticity of one’s own being.

Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world. In the search for sharing, for “friends”, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.

What do you think? Are you careful about the kinds of friendships you’re developing online? Do you think the Pope is right? Are there dangers we need to avoid?

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About the author

Rodney Olsen

Rodney is a husband, father, cyclist, blogger and podcaster from Perth Western Australia.

He previously worked in radio for about 25 years but these days he spends his time at Compassion Australia, working towards releasing children from poverty in Jesus' name.

The views he expresses here are his own.

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  • One of the big dangers I see is the huge amount of time which can potentially be devoured by online networks … time which is at the expense of something else. Although if it’s instead of TV that might not be so bad!

    I dabbled with Facebook, but always felt a little uncomfortable spending time “interacting” online with people I didn’t know well (and didn’t have much in common with), while neglecting long term friends within my own suburb. Yes, I can relate to the part about being less present.

    In the end I deactivated myself (in Facebook) before becoming very committed, because I didn’t want to spend my time that way. In its rightful place I’m sure it can be a tool used for good – but with discernment, so as not to be at the expense of real friends.

    • Thanks for your comments, Graham.

      I certainly understand your decision to deactivate Facebook. When I check my account I see some people who seem to post items constantly. I wonder why there’s a need to be present for those online friends but not to those in their families or real life social networks.

  • Hmmm…. Anything in Life can use up too much time. Anything can become out of balance. For me, it will always be a matter of *how* we use what we have. I see people who spend wild amounts of time with friends in the ‘Real World’ either sitting around doing nothing or watching tv or attending loud parties where nothing deep or meaningful is shared. Does that mean it’s a better use of time just because it’s spent with “real friends” in the “real world”?

    I have found my online friends to be quick with words of encouragement and comfort and offers of prayer whenever I have needed them. My “real world friends” are often too shy to share comfort or they forget. But these same people online? They’re much more likely to speak from their hearts. To remember to say something kind at Facebook or at my blog. To take the time to show they care about what I’m facing.

    Maybe it’s because of a shift which has taken place because of technology, I don’t know. But what I do know is that “words set down upon paper” have always been part of our real world throughout History and some of the most passionately sweet letters, books, poems and sermons have been expressed in written form, changing lives forever. Words will always be powerful whether they are spoken or written (the Bible, anyone?) and even when they are typed into a computer screen. What matters most, I think is *how* we use our words, our time, our lives.

    At least, that’s how I feel….Debra

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Debra.

      You make some excellent points. Like so much of new technology, it’s not the technology that causes the problem but the heart of the person using it.

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