By Fr. Glenn Jones:
I watched a very informative documentary on Netflix the other day that might be eye-opening to many: “The Social Dilemma”, in which former social media executives are interviewed about the tactics of those websites to draw people in, and to keep them hooked. Much of it is well known, but hearing it expressed and expanded upon by insiders really hits home.
Since social media became “a thing”, teen and pre-teen suicides have increased multifold. That very self-conscious age group is always seeking positive reinforcement, so readily measured (they think) by “likes”, “friends” or followers that they have. Additionally, the hope of a “viral” post can tempt them into doing things far outside of good judgment … furthering another affliction we hear about daily: online predators luring youth into their traps.
These are just some of the reasons why so many of those former execs don’t let their kids have phones or follow social media. In fact, several of those interviewed urge viewers to avoid social media sites altogether—hard to do these days. After all, one need only go to Los Lunas, NM, and see the hu-MON-gous Facebook facility being built to the west. One can only speculate that many of those buildings will be packed with computers collecting data on usage, AI discerning what will keep us hooked, etc. For instance, such websites track “engagement time” whenever we pause on a picture, post or article—EVERY time—to see what draws attention. Even the little ellipsis when someone is typing you a response is a tool to keep you glued to the screen.
As the interviewees explained, our attention is the product; advertisers are the buyers … pretty much common to all advertising. Yet we drive past the billboard; the phone is always with us and among our most prized possessions. (“My…preciouussss….”) Even we who grew up with corded phones with the round dialers can scarcely part with our cells … and “our” sites.
Another observation during the documentary was something quite evident every day—the proliferation of “fake news”, conspiracy theories, etc., which have the effect of ripping apart society. Anyone is able to make a video promoting any theory, post it on several sites, and have as many (maybe more) views than someone who is simply providing facts and reason. Actually, since facts and reason are “boring”, it may be that people prefer extremes. “That reasonable person could be part of the ‘conspiracy’ to make us complacent—don’t you know that!?!” Sigh.
Just about anything can be used for nefarious purpose. In fact, those things which are very good can be twisted to work toward the very worst in human behavior. Obviously, the priest and minister pedophile scandals immediately come to mind for we Catholics and other Christians so plagued with such in the past—wolves in pastors’ clothing preying upon the precious lambs (“…[these] are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:13-14)). But such persons are hardly unique; we also read almost daily of teachers, day care employees, even parents and adult relatives—people in just about every walk of society—involved in those heinous acts, as well as in many other crimes. No walk of life seems immune.
Yes, social media can be bad … very bad. And yet there are also many ways it is very good—providing information, good social networking, etc.—the things for which it was initially hoped to cultivate. Weeding the bad from the good is the problem.
But as in just about everything, keeping something good starts with the user—in this case: us. The person who longs for good must use things to good purpose only. As we read in scripture: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin,” (James 4:17), and Jesus tells us in the Gospel of the Sunday Catholic Mass for August 29 this year: “…the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” (Mark 7:18-22)
Temptations to do evil are all around us, and many misled, mistaken and malicious will try to manipulate us to succumb to them. Yet those who long to do the good are never denied the grace to do so, and the strength that comes from grace resides in the will. As we read: “If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice…Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him.” (Sirach 15:15-17)
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “If you wish to be a saint, will it!” Will … what? “…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…[and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) And we are ever aided by St. Paul’s exhortation on the heels of his Master: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) This gives us a rule for our social media as well. So … as in a closing for the Mass: “Go forth, glorifying the Lord by your lives.”
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am.”
Editor’s note: Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.