From influencers to cyborgs, Pope Francis has tech advice for young people

Pope Francis takes a selfie with pilgrims at the April 1 2015 general audience in St Peters Square Credit Vatican Media Pope Francis takes a selfie with pilgrims at the April 1, 2015 general audience in St. Peter’s Square. | Vatican Media.

Discussing current digital trends, from "influencers" to cyborgs to "zapping," Pope Francis' recent apostolic letter to young people contains both buzzwords and moral advice for Millenial and iGen digital natives.

"The life that Jesus gives us is a love story, a life history that wants to blend with ours and sink roots in the soil of our own lives. That life is not a salvation up 'in the cloud' and waiting to be downloaded, a new 'app' to be discovered, or a technique of mental self-improvement," Pope Francis wrote in his apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit (Christ is Alive) published April 2.

The 50-page letter, addressed to "all Christian young people," seeks to address the "highly digitalized culture" that young adults are immersed in today.

This digital environment has "a profound impact on ideas of time and space, on our self-understanding, our understanding of others and the world, and our ability to communicate, learn, be informed and enter into relationship with others," the document states.

While social media can "provide an extraordinary opportunity for dialogue, encounter and exchange between persons, as well as access to information and knowledge," the pope warned that "it is not healthy to confuse communication with mere virtual contact."

He insisted that young people today must "find ways to pass from virtual contact to good and healthy communication."

Otherwise, youth can be left feeling "rootless" living in a "virtual world," which can be "a world of loneliness and of self-invention," Pope Francis wrote.

"The collapse of fundamental certainties, fostered by today's media culture, creates a deep sense of orphanhood to which we must respond by creating an attractive and fraternal environment where others can live with a sense of purpose," he advised.

Pope Francis cautioned that "online relationships can become inhuman" because "digital spaces blind us to the vulnerability of another human being and prevent us from our own self-reflection."

He pointed to the example of pornography, which he said distorts a young person's perception of human sexuality.

"Technology used in this way creates a delusional parallel reality that ignores human dignity," Francis continued.

"Digital media can expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships."

Pope Francis also had advice for the users of online news and social networking sites.

He said that these social media platforms create "a public square" and can encourage "political engagement and active citizenship," facilitating "the circulation of independent information providing effective protection for the most vulnerable and publicizing violations of their rights."

However, Francis cautioned that the way that  "many platforms work often ends up favouring encounter between persons who think alike, shielding them from debate."

"The proliferation of fake news is the expression of a culture that has lost its sense of truth and bends the facts to suit particular interests," he said, which foments "prejudice and hate."

"The reputation of individuals is put in jeopardy through summary trials conducted online. The Church and her pastors are not exempt from this phenomenon."

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Beyond social media, Pope Francis also addressed other technological developments that influence young people today.

"Advances in the sciences and in biomedical technologies have powerfully influenced perceptions about the body, leading to the idea that it is open to unlimited modification," he said.

"The capacity to intervene in DNA, the possibility of inserting artificial elements into organisms (cyborgs) and the development of the neurosciences represent a great resource, but at the same time they raise serious anthropological and ethical questions."

Christus Vivit highlights youth as a time for discernment of one's vocation in the world, which requires a certain degree of prayerful solitude and silence.

Immersion in "a culture of zapping" - moving rapidly between multiple screens or channels - can be a distraction from that essential task, the document warns.

"We can navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three virtual scenarios. Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend," Pope Francis said.

Twenty-five year old Laphidil Oppong Twumasi, one of the 36 "youth auditors" in the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith, and vocational discernment last October, said that she was surprised to discover terms like "influencer" and "zapping" in an official document of the Church.

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"It is easy to understand and is not lost in archaisms," Twumasi said at a Vatican press conference for the document's release.  "I must say that there was an effort and a willingness to hear and to really listen to us," she said.

While warning of the technology's potential pitfalls, the pope has also embraced social media and technology himself. The pope's Twitter handle, @Pontifex, has 18 million followers.

Pope Francis recently launched a new app, Click to Pray, which connects smartphone users with a global network to share prayer intentions.

"Seeking the Lord, keeping his word, entrusting our life to him and growing in the virtues: all these things make young hearts strong. That is why you need to stay connected with Jesus, to "remain online" with him, since you will not grow happy and holy by your own efforts and intelligence alone," Christus Vivit states.

"Just as you try not to lose your connection to the internet, make sure that you stay connected with the Lord."

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