The Virtual Illusion

Fr. John Bonavitacola
Dear Friends,

During a recent meeting with the priests of the Diocese of Rome, Pope Francis made this observation in relation to a question about young people:

What is the cry of young people? The cry of young people isn’t always conscious. I link it with one of the gravest problems, which is the problem of drugs. The cry is: “save us from drugs,” but not only from material drugs, but also from alienating drugs, from cultural alienation. They are in fact an easy prey for cultural alienation: the proposals made to young people are all alienating, all alienating — those that society makes to young people. Alienating of values, alienating from insertion in the society, alienating even from society: they propose a fantasy of life. It worries me that they communicate and live in the virtual world. They live like this, communicating so, they don’t have their feet on the ground . . .

On Friday I went to the closing of a course of Scholas Occurrentes with young people: they were from Colombia, from Argentina, from Mozambique, from Brazil, from Paraguay and other countries; some fifty young people who had had a course here on bullying. They were all there waiting for me. When I arrived they made a din, as young people do. I approached them to greet them and few shook my hand. The majority were with their mobile phone taking photos, photos, photos . . . selfies. I saw that that was their reality, that’s the real world, not human contact. And this is grave. They are “virtualized” young people. The world of virtual communications is a good thing, but when it becomes alienating it makes one forget to shake hands. They greet with the mobile phone – almost all do! They were happy to see me, to tell me things . . . And they expressed their authenticity thus. They greeted one thus. We must make young people “land” in the real world, touch the reality, without destroying the good things that there can be in the virtual world, because they are useful. This is important: the reality, the concreteness. Therefore, I go back to something I said earlier on another question: the works of mercy help young people a lot. To do something for others, because this makes them concrete, makes them “land.” And they enter into a social relationship.

I read those words just as news was breaking about another school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. While there is not one single solution to the problem and we need to look at it from many angles, each of the young killers was clearly alienated from himself, his peers, his family and his God. While the use of technology is not the cause of the alienation it accelerates it and deepens it. The consistent lack of authentic human contact causes a young person to forget his common humanity, lose all empathy for others and become engulfed in a sense of worthlessness. So, gaining even twisted notoriety can appear to be a source of some level of personal worth and validation. The virtual world can easily push a young person into a life that is delusional and a reality that is an illusion.

How can we then find ways to limit our use of impersonal technology and not allow it to become a substitute for interaction with another human being. I find it odd that one of the burning issues in our culture is the use of therapy animals (as opposed to service animals). Airlines, restaurants and other places of public accommodation have had to come up with a policy on this issue. Animals can and do serve a therapeutic value. But could the explosion of the need for such be another sign of a lack of human interaction caused by overuse of technology?

At our finger tips, with one or two clicks is the entire vast trove of accumulated human knowledge. But also, there are lots of dark corners, that our young people particularly, can access without our knowing it and who would likely never have encountered it except for technology. Much of it is not age-appropriate.

Parents need to monitor their child’s internet and social media usage. You don’t need to be sneaky about but rather let your child know that you will frequently check their social media posts as they are, like everything in the cyber world, in the public domain. Doing so will allow parents to have frank and open discussion about what’s going on in their child’s life.

The virtual world created by technology is a whole new reality that we are only beginning to adjust to and to comprehend its short and long-term pluses and minuses. So far, we are finding out that living in the virtual world can never replace living in the real world with flesh and blood human interaction.

Love, Fr. John B.

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