LEICESTER, United Kingdom – While lamenting a “selfie” generation “nurtured by the narcissism and voyeurism of social networking,” the Primate of All Ireland admitted he tried to keep off his phone and tablet for 12 hours a day during Lent, “but failed miserably.”

What’s worse, those twelve hours were from 9 pm until 9 am, so Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh was asleep for much of that time.

Martin was speaking at a seminar on faith in the digital world which took place on May 29 in Maynooth.

The archbishop said “the sheer exponential speed of development” of the internet, along with the “immensity of questions” it has raised about people’s identity and relationships and belonging, “not to mention the huge ethical and moral questions it poses, can sometimes frighten us from even going there.”

Although people often think of the problems of social media as plaguing the young, even older people – including archbishops – are affected.

Martin mentioned the screen time facility on his mobile phone and tablet, which offers me a detailed analysis of the time a person spends on their devices.

“It tells me whether my total screen time is up, or down, on last week – which invariably leads to feelings of either guilt or self-congratulation,” he said.

The seminar was reflecting on Pope Francis’s message for the World Day of Communication, which is marked on June 2, and had the title We are members one of another (Eph 4,25).  From network community to human communities.

“I invite you to consider how we can be ‘believers’ in the digital world, and, conversely, reflect on the impact which the digital world is having on Church, society, on family, on interpersonal relationships and on each of us as individual persons,” Martin said.

“Clearly a screen culture which massively prioritizes ‘image’ over listening and reading, will influence the missionary endeavors of all the great world faiths whose members have been traditionally known as People of the Book,” he continued. “The digital world also has obvious implications for our contemporary understanding and use of key concepts like love, friendship, community, gathering, solidarity with others, especially the vulnerable.”

He spoke about the extremes of the “instant gratification” culture of the “selfie generation”: Young people constantly checking their phones for likes and friends, obsessing for hours over their profile picture, or the macabre filming and instant sharing of tragic incidents like road accidents or the aftermath of terrorist attacks.

“What can believers say into this space? How might we understand more fully the driving forces within cyberspace and witness by our example to a Christian, healthy, and wholesome presence online?” Martin asked.

“I suggest that Church and society has much to evaluate and reflect on in these areas,” the archbishop said.

Emma Tobin, a 22-year-old post-graduate student, told the seminar that the “real power” of modern social media is how it can connect people who share the same passions and interests.

“It can be quite isolating, as a young person of faith, in secondary school. It’s the age when it’s trendy, and important, to question what our parents have taught us. Most of my friends saw only what the media and the internet were telling them about religion,” she explained.

“That’s where social media is important to young people of faith; because it is often not cool to have faith, and it can isolate young people, and therefore make them more likely to let their faith slip away. Social media has the potential to connect people, to give them spaces where they are able to live their faith,” Tobin said.

Also addressing the seminar was Detective Sergeant Mary McCormack from the police force’s ONCE (Online Child Sexual Exploitation) Unit, who warned about the dangers lurking in the darker corners of the internet.

She said children are often lonely when they go online.

“They’re on their own. They don’t know who to talk to,” McCormack said. “Families out here are trying their best, but they’re working two jobs, they’re coming home to get the dinner ready. They don’t have time to talk, so what are you going to do? They go online to talk to people.”

She also pointed out that children often feel a need to defy their parents, warning that “the ideal victims for predators are especially kids who are rebellious,” since they are less likely to tell their parents.

Although the seminar looked at some of the dangers of the internet, it was primarily interested in the positive possibilities.

Tobin said thanks to social media, there is always a shoulder to cry on, or the possibility to escape into your favorite things when “the world seems dark.”

“It’s powerful, it’s magical. It has already changed the world and how we relate to it, how we relate to others. It has shaped me and changed me and made me more aware of the world outside my corner of it,” the student told the seminar. “Social media has touched almost every aspect of my life; I think ultimately for the better.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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