The internet and social media have caused major changes in human communication, but also create a "tremendous opportunity" for evangelization, a communications expert with the U.S. bishops has said.

"The new social media built off of the internet and the web are really changing how we understand ourselves as humans and how we understand communications," Helen Osman, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' communications secretary, told CNA April 9.

The new technologies' impact is at least as significant as the printing press, and perhaps as significant as the alphabet, on our shared concept of what it means to be human, what it means to communicate, and what it means to be a communicator, she explained.

Osman took part in a roundtable panel discussion on mass media and new social media at the Listening to America Conference, held at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome April 7-9. The conference focused on various aspects of culture, media and faith in the Americas.

Osman told CNA that technological change has affected evangelization "in multiple ways." She suggested the new technologies might mean a return to how the first Christians learned about the faith - "more through a story-telling and narrative approach."

While there can be a "dark side" to the internet, she acknowledged, "for Christians I think it can give a tremendous opportunity and witness in catechizing and evangelizing."

Social media has been "a bridge-builder," helping people to communicate with family and friends around the world, she said.
Internet and social media use among minority groups in the U.S. can help the Catholic Church "reach people that have perhaps been marginalized in the past," including Spanish-speakers and the disabled, and "bring them into the center of the conversation."

"It also means that we have to be more aware of the fact that these various populations, different groups of people, are using social media more and more than perhaps we thought," she said.

Almost every American now has access to a cell phone, which Osman called a "huge change" from the past.

"It literally means that we have the world in our back pocket, and the ramifications of that are multiple. It's going to take us awhile to unpack that," she said.

Osman also noted that some bishops are hesitant to use new forms of communication, in part because of "a generational change" between older and younger Catholics.

"It's something we don't know, so it's new to us, and we feel a bit uncomfortable with that."

She suggested there is some reluctance "to take the Gospel into an environment that may be a little bit messy, may be a little bit loud."

"You know, there are some voices on the internet that are distinctly un-Christian," Osman said. "Pope Benedict spoke several times about the need for missionaries on the digital continent. Again, I think if we think of ourselves as missionaries in this digital culture we can bring some wisdom, and some witness that is greatly needed."

She said many people are not aware of Catholic material available on the internet. Though this is "slowly changing," she observed, "they aren't finding the Catholic content as quickly as they are finding other content."

"There's definitely a bit of a gap between how people use the internet for other parts of their life – banking, education, communicating, health care – and their faith life."

While there are "terrible things" on the internet, such as pornography, violence, hatred, and bullying, she said most people see the internet as "a positive part of their life."

"It's enabled them to find information that they might not have otherwise found, to be able to communicate with family and friends, to stay connected, to participate in government, social organizations, so it's been a positive aspect overwhelmingly for most people."

Osman said the U.S. bishops' conference is trying to integrate faith resources on the internet.

The bishops' conference, in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Church of America, has launched the website to provide a Christian perspective on digital literacy for children.

The site, geared toward parents, guardians and teachers, helps them "work with these digital natives and help them find ways to navigate the world and to move perhaps from innocence to wisdom," Osman explained, stressing the need for parents to help their children "be wise and Christian digital citizens."