A couple of our seminarians and I recently watched a documentary called “The Social Dilemma” (streaming now on Netflix). The filmmaker interviews former Silicon Valley developers who helped to create the majority of the social media platforms that exist today. Most of the subjects left their posts due to ethical concerns about the effect that social media is having on humanity as a whole. This is not a new concern, but the documentary is a helpful source to understand just how addictive our phones and devices can become, and the way that the psychology-based advertising strategy of some social networks can basically break our brain. People stare at their phones, refresh, and stare some more. While “The Social Dilemma” focused much more on the effect that this is having on our youngest generations, we all know that every generation is susceptible to this threat: the threat of having our primary source of truth, goodness and beauty be a plastic rectangle that we hold in our hands.
It was interesting that I watched this film in one of the places in our country where screens do not have such a stranglehold: the seminary. The community life and brotherhood of priestly formation is a great antidote to the addiction of the virtually connected. The men at the seminary are actually connected, in prayer to and worship of the Lord, in common purpose, in conversation, and in challenging one another. This is a great gift that houses of formation provide, and it is something that I advertise to those who I bring to visit the seminary.
I think our younger generations are waking up to the lie of our “plugged-in” society faster than the rest of the population. They know that they will not find truth, goodness or beauty from any social network because ultimately all of these platforms are only seeking eyes and ears and clicks to sell to advertisers. Younger people have seen the destruction that this causes in the alarming rise in depression, self-harm and suicide among youth that the documentary details. This terrible reality, however, is also the reason I believe that these generations are ready to turn to something deeper, something greater, because they know the answer does not lie on their phone, they know that the meaning of life is not how many “likes” they get, but how many real relationships they can develop, and how they develop in relationship with the God who made them. They have spent their childhood in digital spaces that might care about their eyes and ears, but not about their immortal souls.
The Lord is certainly breaking in and speaking loudly and clearly on college campuses that provide access to exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and have thriving Catholic Student Centers because the students just want to grow in relationship with actual people, and with the Lord who actually loves them. I am impressed and inspired by the young men and women who are members of the Catholic Student Associations at the universities and colleges in our state, and I appreciate the pastors, like Father Jason Johnston in Starkville and Father Joe Tonos in Oxford, who support the students who are members of their flocks and hire excellent campus ministry staff to support them.
I encourage all of us this Advent to take a long look at what we are spending our time looking at and listening to. We all need more time with the Lord who loves us, and less time with devices that have made us objects of advertisers’ affection. I wish you all a Blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas.