ON ASH WEDNESDAY Catholics marked the start of Lent. But the Lenten challenge issued by Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Jason Gordon last week is one which all, not just Catholics, can take note of.
In a sign of the times, the Archbishop asked the congregation gathered at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, San Fernando, to make a sacrifice which many immediately regarded as too harsh. Gone are the days when we speak of giving up poultry or liquor or chocolate for Lent. To the horror of the faithful, the Archbishop called on all to give up smart phones for two hours a day, disconnecting from Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and whatnot. He might as well have asked them to take the place of Jesus on the cross!
We could regard this challenge in pure jest. But this would deprive us of a genuine lesson it contains. There is a deeper problem which Gordon’s call, whether made in jest or no, acknowledges. That problem is our increasing addiction to social media and the negative consequences. Several reports have been published in which researchers have tracked the harmful impact on teenagers. Unprecedented levels of anxiety in youth have been linked to the rise of the myriad online tools of self-promotion.
But aside from medical issues, social media sends messages which are sometimes counterproductive.
In the online realm what is fast, superficial, and flashy is given priority over substance, over genuine discourse. Fake news jockeys for attention with real updates.
There is also something to be said for the loss of privacy. A court in Belgium last week had cause to order Facebook to stop tracking third parties who do not use its site. Unwittingly or wittingly, social media has become a tool which deprives us of privacy, posing a direct challenge to the sanctity of the human being.
Of course, social media is also used for good. Just as it can spread malicious gossip, as was the case in a recent High Court defamation lawsuit, it can also spread valuable news.
It can also provide important tips for law enforcement agencies, as in the sadly botched case of the Parkland, Florida shooter who left breadcrumbs which the FBI failed to follow.
But Gordon’s challenge is a reminder of the need for us to return to a state where we can be present in the moment, without the endless pressure to take a selfie.
That’s a reminder that’s useful all year round, Lent or no.