Screen time is officially part of Catholic Social Teaching. What does it mean for us and our iPhones?

A journalist takes a cell phone photo of Pope Francis Jan. 23, 2019, aboard his flight from Rome to Panama for World Youth Day. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis urges us to commit ourselves to practice universal love in the pursuit of inclusive and interdependent solidarity. Even before the pandemic—but especially since Covid-19 disrupted our routines and changed how we gather—our social context was marked by encounters mediated through our screens, thanks to digital technology and social media.

Francis updates the canon of Catholic social thought by scrutinizing these digital tools and networks. “Fratelli Tutti” invites us to consider how our screens too often reflect and reinforce “reductive anthropological visions” that distort inherent human dignity, obscure rights and responsibilities, sew distrust and exacerbate social division (No. 22).

In Paragraphs 42 through 50, Francis highlights the dangers of digital communication: the lack of privacy; habits of voyeurism and constant surveillance; misinformation and emotional manipulation; contempt for others expressed—sometimes anonymously—by unchecked aggression; the vanity of catering everything to our interests and preferences while being able to swipe or click past anything unpleasant; the problems of a “cancel culture” that prefers to excise rather than engage what may be disagreeable.

From a theological and moral perspective, we must consider how digital devices and networks can cultivate vice and induce people to sin.

The pope is right to point out these threats to human dignity and community. The church has not given adequate attention to the moral impact of screens on our identity, agency and relationships. Tristan Harris, a former tech designer at Google, warns that if we do not become more aware of the influence of digital technology on us, we will fail to prevent the trend of “human downgrading” that makes us more dependent on these tools.

From a theological and moral perspective, we must consider how these digital devices and networks can cultivate vice and induce people to sin. Although these digital tools are not inherently good or bad, their moral value depends on how they are used, both in terms of intention and circumstances, as well as the effects of their use.

We may see platforms like Facebook, for example, as harmless ways to access information or entertainment, to enhance efficiency or forge more connections. In reality, we are the product Facebook seeks while the company collects and sells user data, predicts and parlays preferences and disillusions some users while emboldening others. The result is not just more divisiveness but more radicalization that normalizes fear, disgust and even violence.

Following rampant misinformation campaigns in the run-up to the 2016 election, Facebook only recently took action against “troll farms” that are hoping to sway voters again in 2020. Facebook has made some changes to their policies, including a decision not to run political ads the week before the election next month. Current and former employees, though, continue to express concern about what is at stake for our democracy. Recently, the former Facebook engineer Ashok Chandwaney accused the company of “profiting off hate” in the United States and around the globe.

If our newsfeeds remain echo chambers that confirm our own views, we may have fewer opportunities to practice humility in striving to listen and learn from others who look or think differently from us.

This should give pause to every Facebook account holder. The cause for alarm reaches beyond the compare-and-despair dynamic so prevalent on social media, or the diminishing rates of empathy and rising rates of depression, anxiety and social isolation due to impoverished interactions online. If our newsfeeds remain echo chambers that confirm our own views, we may have fewer opportunities to practice humility in striving to listen and learn from others who look or think differently from us. This is an especially important moral consideration in a social context where the majority of Americans have racially segregated social bonds, which may explain why white Americans struggle to understand the experiences of Black Americans.

While “Fratelli Tutti” underscores how digital media and connections undermine social friendship, the encyclical fails to address how they can be harnessed for a “culture of encounter” that leads to “communities of belonging” (Nos. 30, 36). Francis makes clear that our screens will not save us, but no viable solution will be found in a Luddite rejection of technology.

Francis’ misgivings about these digital tools and networks are ironic because his vision of church reform includes decentralization and drawing near to the peripheries; when used well, social media provides an essential platform for underrepresented individuals and groups to lift their voice. These tools and networks have been used effectively to resist hegemonic power structures and build egalitarian coalitions across physical distance. They are also essential avenues for connection and support for people who are socially marginalized, like L.G.B.T. individuals and persons with disabilities. Solidarity today demands digital freedom as a right and co-responsibility.

Pope Francis writes in "Fratelli Tutti" that “no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together.”

Individually, we need to become more reflective and intentional about how and why we use these digital tools and networks. We should become more attuned to how time spent online affects our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, as well as how our digital decisions affect others. Do our digital habits help manifest that we are all members of “a single family dwelling in a common home” (No. 17)? This means, for example, resisting the temptation to swipe or scroll past suffering, and instead becoming more sensitive to the ways our screens can serve as a buffer that keeps us from confronting injustice, whether near or far. If our screens train us to see ourselves more as spectators than as stakeholders in our communities, we might consider adopting a digital fast to give ourselves the reset we need.

Our moral formation happens through relationships with others and our shared practices, which gives credence to Francis’ line that “no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together” (No. 32). In “The Joy of Love” Pope Francis reminds the church, “We have been called to form consciences, not replace them” (No. 37). This duty to inform our conscience and help form others’ consciences requires safety and trust. These requirements are not as likely to be accomplished by clicks and taps on a screen as by meaningful offline interactions with friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and strangers. Screens should serve and supplement but never supplant these relationships.

Invoking the story of the good Samaritan, Francis observes, “All of us have in ourselves something of the wounded man, something of the robber, something of the passers-by, and something of the good Samaritan” (No. 69). To “go and do likewise,” following the example of the Samaritan, we do not need to rid ourselves of technology. But we do need to rethink our approach to these digital devices and networks so they can be more than tools for information or entertainment. We need to embrace them as portals to more diverse views and voices to deepen our grasp of our complex and interdependent reality. We need to ensure they serve as instruments of greater transparency and accountability, especially in resisting abuses of power that silence, stigmatize or shame individuals or groups. We should use them to raise consciousness, activate agency, organize collaboratively and creatively stretch our imagination.

By doing so, we can work toward our shared flourishing and the global common good. A vision for the universal love of solidarity requires nothing less in a digital age.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of Pope Francis.]

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