ROME – In a 1964 book, Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco distinguished between two main attitudes concerning the rise of mass media — an apocalyptic approach, seeing gloom and doom in new technology, and an option to integrate technological and communications revolutions within the preexisting culture.

Today, as social media establishes itself as a primary form of communication, especially among youth, Catholic lay and religious leaders at a conference in Rome on Wednesday seemed to be figuring out where on the spectrum between those two poles they fall.

While the main objective of the congress was to look at social media “not as a problem, but as a resource,” the majority of the speakers, representing different religious denominations, agreed on an increasing number of concerns it poses.

The gathering was sponsored by the episcopal conference of the Lazio region, which meets every year in the auditorium of the Divino Amore Sanctuary just outside Rome. This year organizers decided to discuss the topic of “Youth and God on the Web,” attracting hundreds of educators and teachers.

In October, the Vatican will be hosting a Synod on youth and discernment, called by Pope Francis, which will likely address the challenges posed by the social media age in addressing young people. The meeting of bishops is delving into the world of Facebook, in order to gain insight into the concerns and issues youth face today.

The Apocalyptics

“I place myself among the apocalyptics,” said Paolo Naso, a Protestant journalist who in the past has worked closely with the Community of St. Egidio. He’s part of Italy’s small but symbolically important Waldensian Evangelical Church, which is actually a pre-Protestant denomination founded in the 12th century by Peter Waldo, a Medieval spiritual reformer. It’s since merged with the Methodist church in Italy.

Though Naso withheld his judgement concerning the entire web, emails, and technological devices, he expressed pessimism toward social media networks as promoting a form of newfound “tribalism.”

The use of the word “follower,” he said, “is problematic not only in religious terms, but also in secular terms,” because it presupposes “gurus” who, through their social media presence, influence and persuade acolytes. Even the idea of friendship on these platforms is skewed, according to the journalist, because it is not understood in terms of “quality of relations,” and instead becomes a gateway for being allowed into someone’s circle.

Naso listed four main issues he sees as rampant in the social media world.

The first is its “compulsive nature,” where “one must react and has to react in a hurry” to what happens, which, he said, “doesn’t allow meditation, it doesn’t allow afterthought.”

The second problem, according to Naso, is the “radicality” of social media, which usually “becomes a place, nesting grounds for invective and insults.”

Thirdly, “it’s evident that [social networks] are a gym for exhibitionism, because people can easily measure the success of their words on the web,” he said, adding concern for the rising figure of “the influencer,” who by virtue of his number of followers has enormous impact on trends and beliefs.

Speaking to the educators, Naso pointed to how, given its enormous power, social media could easily substitute for them in shaping young minds. But this would mean forgetting the importance of the “material dimension of relationships,” which, he said, are especially important in the teacher/student dynamic.

Television anchor Monica Mondo, who appears on Italy’s Catholic channel Tv2000 and also moderated the meeting, took a relatively apocalyptic stance too. While recognizing the possibility for social media to connect not only individuals but also people with God, she voiced concerns for the “exhibitionist narcissism” she said dominates these forums.

The Integrators

At the other end of the spectrum, among Eco’s integrators, was Italian Bishop Gerardo Antonazzo, president of the commission for ecumenism and dialogue for the episcopal conference of the Lazio region.

According to the bishop, the topic of social media “deserves to be mentioned without fear or emotional impulse, but in a reasonable way.”

Antonazzo recognized that social media has become so essential in the way people, and especially young people, interact, that it cannot be ignored or underplayed. While he said issues regarding the quality of relationships on social networks is important, the bishop also posed the possibility of whether they could become “a privileged channel to provoke an encounter with God.”

He asked if it’s possible to create “symbols of faith that can be disseminated and hence grown though the use of social media” to create experiences of faith.

“We are all aware that social media presented a great opportunity to divulge the Gospel in an immediate way, with a simple ‘click’ throughout the world,” Antonazzo said.

Catholic Father Paolo Bennati, who has written several articles on bio-technology and innovations, said “technology is not our enemy,” though it’s essential to try and preserve humanity when moving in the digital world.

He made the comparison between ancient mammoths, who had to wait for a new hairless generation before they could move to Asia or Africa, and humans, who didn’t wait for their children to be prepared before sending them into the “frozen tundra” of the digital age.

Today, Bennati said, “knowledge has been inverted,” in the sense that instead of passing through generations, young people are now teaching adults how to adapt to new technologies.

“This revolution was born from a group of pirates,” he added referring to the youth of the ‘60s who went on to build Apple, Microsoft and Google, and made it in such a way that there is no longer “an accredited source or authority.”

The main goal now, he said, is to learn how to inhabit this “digital continent that is the life of our kids.”

Rabbi Benedetto Carducci Viterbi, director of the Jewish Schools of Rome and a teacher of biblical exegesis at the Gregorian University, defined himself as “not really integrating, but not apocalyptic.” The word “web,” he said, has a dual nature that implies not only “connecting, putting in relation” but also “catching, imprisoning,” so that the key becomes “how to better develop and utilize the mechanics of the web,” while at the same time “protecting ourselves from danger.”

He drew from the first verse of Leviticus, when God speaks to Adam, as a model of conversation to apply when looking at all forms of communication, including social media.

“Every time God speaks, he calls by name first,” Viterbi said. “By calling [Moses] by name he expresses affection toward him. From this, the masters drew that in order to speak to someone they must first call him by name, and thus prepare them to listen.”

The rabbi said that while the web allows for individuality, “very often we find ourselves before social media that inundates us without our consent.” Concerning empathy, he remarked that “it’s a more problematic aspect, because it necessarily has to go through physical presence,” but at the same tame emphasized that social media radically broadens the scope of possible relations.

Plan B

“Since apocalyptics must ultimately resign and a ban [on social media] is unsustainable, we must opt for plan B,” which is the reduction of social media influence in our lives, Naso said.

According to Mondo, who described herself as a mother of three children “who live on the web,” teachers and educators are essential in promoting a culture that is not enveloped by social media. “Children never listen to their parents, they are more inclined to listening to educators, teachers and adults,” she said, adding that families today “are liquefied and disaggregated.”

Mondo told participants at the congress that she prohibits the use of cellphones at the dinner table and tries to limit them as much as possible.

Viterbi stated that in his family, the weekly Shabbat meal is entirely phone – and internet – free. At the end, he said, his five children rush to their phones or tablets to see “what they’ve missed.”

“The corrective element has to come from us. We need to ask ourselves as human beings how to respond,” he said.

Drawing inspiration from the communication between God and Moses, the ultimate teacher and student, Viterbi said there can be a correction to the compulsive need for young people to draw attention to themselves on social media, “which might be born from the fact that nobody really listens to them.”