In his address to the Asian Bishops’ General Conference, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle focuses on the importance of reading in an age of social media to develop critical thinking and empathy.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Pope’s special envoy to the General Conference of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), addressed the gathering on Saturday 29 October. He highlighted the importance of reading in the development of young people, focusing on social media and AI since they are affecting our “call to evangelize”.
Social media has “been a blessing in the world” since it has made information now goes beyond the confines of “elite groups”, he reminded FABC delegates. Social media allowed us to remain connected during the pandemic and many parents began to realize that they are both “teachers and catechists” as well.
Humans are changing
“We are being asked to be attentive, for the use of social media also changes our view of the human person in a very subtle way”, he continued. This affects our relationships and our “involvement in the transformation of society”, he explained.
Thanks to AI, the Cardinal said, “AI does the work of a human being”, making some aspects of human work obsolete. Spell check has replaced the art of spelling and syntax; calculators do our math. Typing has led to handwriting becomes less legible, and perhaps is disappearing. Thus, the Cardinal’s question regarding “a new form of illiteracy”, leading to “underdevelopment”, leading to the possibility of the disappearance of critical thinking, for example, he explained.
Regarding the relationship of youth and social media, Cardinal Tagle shared some information obtained by in a survey conducted by Gravissimum educationis. The first question was how young people see themselves, see us, and see them.
Regarding the “I”, the “identity that surfaced [in the study] was the illusion of self-sufficiency. A self-sufficiency that is illusory”. The source of this illusion comes from the affirmation received from photos posted. “It’s a form of exhibition – you have to advertise yourself”, to the point of even posting provocative images, all for the purposes of seeing “how many will like me”, to receive likes “constantly from their circle”. This leads to compulsion, the Cardinal noted. “Social media becomes a tool for this so-called illusory self-sufficiency”. Then young people construct their world with those who “like” them, eliminating those who do not “like” them.
In this way, crowds are assembled without being completely present. Those who gather think they are assembling, but they are gathering. “An assembly means interiority, and a crowd can be gathered without interiority”, he related from the survey noted above. Thus a “we is lacking that would make us capable of collective action”. Instead, we remain “isolated individuals” even when in the presence of others. It’s no longer the crowd that characterizes current society, but loneliness, because “the interiority that makes us an assembled community”, he explained.
Cardinal Tagle said the study also noted that people are more connected, but “paradoxically we care less and less about others. Even though we are more connected, we do not communicate more”. This leads to the lack of empathy toward others, toward those we do not know, towards “them”. Instead, social media breeds the search for fidelity among our small group of friends.
He reminded his audience that these are trends among young people in general, and may not be true about every young person. However, this is the “world they [young people] have learned to inhabit”, fostering a subtle transformation in this direction in those who use social media. If others do not like me, “I don’t care…. I will care for them only if they join my circle”. Those not in my circle would “disturb my self-sufficiency”.
Education is Church’s platform
The relationship between youth and social media framed the Cardinal’s second point. Since the Church is involved in the education ministry, education is the setting of our contact with youth, he observed. Many young people now lack critical thinking and empathy due to their use of current technology. Psychologists and neurologists have also demonstrated that as a result, many young people can no longer read. “We might think of technology as an external tool”, the Cardinal noted, “but they change consciousness”.
Necessity of reading
Some researchers have noted that reading does not come naturally, survival does. People all around the world recognize various foods and water; but alphabets must be learned, reading is an acquired skill through which our brains and its analytic and contemplative ability develop, the Cardinal explained. Digital learning, with its quick acquisition of bytes of information, leads to the loss of nuance and complexity. Humans acquire empathy when we delve into the reading of novels; we acquire critical thinking skills as we confront our own ideas with those of an author. The same does not happen through watching visual content, the Cardinal reported.
Implications for the future
If we do not understand what is taking place in the development of our young people, it will result in a future of people who do not know to think critically and a “generation without empathy”. When applying this to our schools, the Cardinal asked his audience, “does reading get the attention it deserves?” If not, this will have an “impact on the type of society” in the future. “Are we developing citizens who will develop a critical intelligence coupled with empathy for those they do not know?” the Cardinal asked the FABC delegates
Thus, the motivation for evangelizing social media itself, since it is an omnipresence in the entire world, Cardinal Tagle concluded.
With thanks to Vatican News and Sr Bernadette Mary Reis fsp, where this article originally appeared.