A legend has St Peter walking along a road outside of Rome, trying to avoid arrest and certain death, when he arrives at a crossroads: there he meets our risen Lord.
“Quo vadis?” (Where are you going?) Peter asks, to which Jesus replies: “Romam vado iterum crucifigi.” (I am going to Rome to be crucified again.)
I am reminded of this story as I reflect on the decisions we make on social media, recognising that we too forget the ultimate question that guides the decisions we make in life. Where are you going?
I’ve grappled with social media over the last five years. It has its pros and cons. I’ve come to realise and appreciate that the internet has profoundly impacted the way we engage with one another as humans. Accepting this can move us into a direction of creative ways to evangelise but also responsible ways.
Certain influencers have argued that social media hasn’t changed us, it has really exposed us. Now more than ever, the inclinations of human beings are made more obvious online and often. If you are attentive to it, you’ll notice certain behaviours that give you some insight into a person’s character. While we are not to assume and make judgement solely on what a person posts, it is true that social media allows us to share some part of ourselves with our audience.
We are called to strive for certain virtues, even more so as Catholics. Since we have come to deeper understandings of the Truth, our decisions should move towards aligning ourselves with that Truth. In order to do so, our striving for virtues should leads us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). In a nutshell, knowledge equals responsibility. This is not always easy, but it is necessary to accept. This is the way of perfection, this the way to holiness, this is the way to heaven.
God gives us free will and we are called to choose what is true, good and beautiful.
Unfortunately, the speed at which social media has risen and continues to change, has meant that we have not developed ways to be more responsible with its use. This has implications as our human nature struggles to fight envy, jealousy, competitiveness and spite. Sound familiar? I recall many nights scrolling through my news feed, passively consuming the lives of people not realising how it was affecting the way I saw myself.
Ultimately, I believe what we post can impact people in positive and negative ways. If we are expected to communicate face to face with one another in a loving, authentic and intentional way, why should it be any different from how we are to engage with people on social media.
It must be acknowledged that social media is a different medium of communication and so we must consider what makes it different. Here are a few observations.
- One: we as the users, have full control about what we post. Besides anything considered offensive, or illegal that may be reported or taken down, for the most part, we choose.
- Two: we are not certain who receives what we post and who views it. Therefore, it will land differently in the hearts of our followers.
- Three: unlike face to face conversations, we as social media users are generally more consumers than proactive users. We consume a lot of content. We are autopilot scrollers.
With these in mind, the responsibility to be prudent, intentional and responsible is needed now more than ever. I find this is the case, especially working in youth ministry. With young people being more active online than older generations, it means we must be mindful about how we represent, not just ourselves, but the Catholic faith, especially if we claim to follow Jesus.
How we are online will affect how others see us and ultimately, the faith. It matters. Integrity offline and online matters.
There exists a cycle that perpetuates a culture of showing our “highlights reel”. To explain, there are posts purporting to be a complete and authentic representation of one’s life which falsely leads young people to believe that these posts are the whole truth. We notice that when people see the likes and comments that affirm someone’s online profile, young people believe this is a role model. However, I know that this is not only an issue young people deal with. The struggle to meet these standards often results in feelings of unworthiness. I urge you to consider the reality that what you see on social media is never the full picture – ironically.
We see the impact of this as mental illness rises and more and more young people present at GPs and counsellors suffering from depression and anxiety.
The falsehood of the “highlights reel” is something that has been in the public forum for a while, but it needs to be talked about. Not only does it affect people’s perceptions, it also could lead people astray. This is serious.
There are other trends, I wish to put out on the table. Please allow me to share:
- aggressive debating and arguing on Catholic doctrine leading others further away from a loving encounter or experience of the faith;
- sensationalising one’s spiritual life. As an example, exaggerating one’s prayer life, leading to misconceptions about what it means to be someone of faith; and
- posting stories or images that cause scandal. As an example, content which cause people to question faith and normalises behaviours not aligned with the truth (for example, posting bible verses while posing sensually). This misrepresentation causes scandal.
I am aware that there are others and possibly, a clear articulation of these may not be possible right now, however these trends of engagement with social media seems to be doing the opposite of the desired intention. It’s concerning.
If ultimately, we are called to draw people into relationship with God, then these real-life examples show how poorly we are using and engaging with social media, and it should be addressed.
I’ve thought about this often and have come to the following to help me when I post. I offer these in the hope that the Good Lord shows us mercy and guides us in our understanding of social media use especially as technology continues to grow and social media changes the way we communicate.
Lord, have mercy.
It is clear to me that one of the first questions to ask is: What is the purpose of my post?
The word to describe this is – intentionality.
Intentionality, I believe is a vital consideration. I’ve really tried to figure out how to do this well. I know I still have work to do but for me, my engagement with my social media accounts tries to fulfil one of two purposes:
- My content, I believe, tries to be others focused or God-directed. I hope it will add value to others, challenge them or prompt reflection about life and faith. The key word I believe is try. I know I am not perfect at this; or
- My posts seek to entertain. My hope is that it makes people smile or laugh and generally remind them that life is beautiful. Again, I’m not always perfect at this either.
Secondly, the question is about representation. What does this post say about me? Could this post mislead others? Does this post ultimately point to me or to Christ? What does this post say about God? Could this post take away from the truth of who God is? Who does this glorify?
In government, there are members of society who are chosen to represent the people. In the same way, what we do on social media not only is a representation of ourselves but also what we purport to stand for. This means, it’s important think before we post.
Here are some other considerations:
- Is it necessary?
- Is it good/points to good?
- Is it true/authentic?
- Is it beautiful?
- Is it loving?
- What virtues could I be striving for with my use of social media?
Friends, these are just some of my thoughts brewing in recent times. My hope is that it begins a conversation, not to discourage but encourage social media use that is aligned to what is good, true and beautiful evangelisation. Social media isn’t going away and so we must ask ourselves, how are we using it? Where are we really going with it?
I am keen to see how this topic grows and how we, as Church, are responding to this new way of communicating the faith.
Let us continue to pray for one another as we strive for integrity offline and now, more than ever, online.
Qwayne Guevara is the Local Engagement Leader, Catholic Youth Parramatta.