|Where Madness Lies|
FaceBook, MySpace and Twitter, Oh My!
If anything has been reinforced in my years as a priest, it is this: the empty and superficial are a massive roadblock in a man’s journey towards God. To draw closer to God, to unite with God, to be one with God–this is the purpose of man’s existence. But God is measureless, all-encompassing, all-satisfying, infinite. Unlike our relation to finite creatures, at no point can we say to God, “I have come thus far and can go no further.” To attain God requires time, depth, effort, and consuming desire. He cannot be exchanged for anything less than Himself–stopping at the finite will always make for loss of the infinite, and man has no meaning without union with the infinite.
The challenge posed by man’s God-given purpose has never been so difficult as today because the superficial has never been so attractive, accessible, and imposing. At every level of man’s existence–natural, intellectual, social, supernatural–what is higher is more nourishing and valuable than what is lower: principles over practice, thinking over acting, lasting over passing, effort over ease, contemplation over meditation, philosophy over science, spiritual over material, God over man. Our technology-charged world, however, manifestly inverts the equation, streamlining the path to what is transitory and shallow, making the living of meaningful human existence a societal aberration. The nightly news, sitcoms, billboards, cell phones, iPods, video games, rock ‘n’ roll, text messages, fax messages, e-mail messages, instantaneous stock quotes, weather reports, news feeds, traffic updates–how can any swimmer drowning in this information tidbit tidal wave manage to breathe deeply the spiritual realities made for his fulfillment?
At this moment, I am typing on a laptop, gift from my St. Joseph’s Businessmen. To the right of the 17-inch flat screen is my Google toolbar, inviting me to indulge any curiosity at the speed of thought by sending off a search engine or Wikipedia query. A visual analog clock ticks away the seconds and minutes while just above it hovers a bright sun with the current temperature in St. Marys and the high and low for the day. Soliciting me with tantalizing attractiveness are 1,532 other “Google gadgets.” For the moment, I have chosen to forgo a display of the position of the planets, a game of Tetris, road maps, a virtual flower pot, an Answer ball, a sidebar TV set, Einstein quotes of the day, and countless other “life enriching” possibilities. All the while, I realize that I am only scraping the surface of the technological monolith.
Among all of the newfangled life-emptying media available today for public consumption, the one most popular among teens is social networking. It seems innocuous enough in principle: just some young people getting together to chat, post some pictures, make friends. In a non-toxic culture, such networking could possibly have positive effects. Today, it is the vehicle to construct a second life,1 a life with virtual friendships unrestricted by any social barriers, parental rules, or human decency. Too often, the difference between a teenager’s in-life persona and online profile is as extreme as the difference between Shirley Temple and Britney Spears. The line between virtual life and real life is marked by the computer keyboard, and the contrast between the two is often shocking.
The exponential success of Twitter2, MySpace and Facebook among tweens and teens should not be a surprise. They give an unheard of and flattering power: a potentially unlimited audience paying attention to you. To take Facebook for example: Every single quiz taken, photo posted, preference stated, comment made, mood changed, and profile perturbation of yours is dutifully and immediately passed on to every single “friend” of which the average user has 120. The famed Facebook “Wall” keeps an instantaneous running tab of the mouse clicks of you and your virtual friends.
Teenagers engaging themselves in the social networking world enter a narcissist incubator that is as addictive as its astounding ability to make me feel good. Many decide not to emerge, leaving family, friends, and the real world out of their timetable in exchange for a second and virtual life that is all the more satisfying as it feeds the craving for attention and validation, without making any demands, moral or social. Out of many studies done, the best estimate is that the average media use for children and teenagers is 6 hours and 21 minutes a day.3
The aim to draw attention can only be reached by going down, not up. The scandalous and sensational outsell the pious and profound. A Teen Trends Study done between 2004 and 2006 concluded with “This generation is unique. Teen life has become a theatrical, self-directed media production.”4
Exhibitionism is rampant in the online matrix. By the design of human nature, girls are to attract and boys are to be attracted. Boys flaunt their drinking, smoking, rocking to death metal, and, yes, their girlfriends. Meanwhile, the girls undress. Few of them hesitate showing themselves in various stages of dishabille to whoever’s interested. And enough are. Me, MySpace, and I quotes a 14-year-old:
I have some very sexy poses as my MySpace pics. I know that they are flashy and pretty because I get requests from older men to be their friends all the time. I like it when people think I am a model. It makes me feel important.5
The official terminology for preparing your MySpace page is “pimping it out.”
The new term “sexting” has even been coined for the fast-growing trend among teens for sending nude or semi-nude pictures.6 Last year, a girl in Cincinnati even went so far as to hang herself after her nude photo meant for her boyfriend was sent to teenagers at several high schools and she became the object of ridicule.
Many of generations past would consider themselves dangerously self-absorbed if they found themselves snapping self-photos and mailing them on a regular basis to all their friends. Today’s teens tote their digital camera with them wherever they go in order to perform for their audience. Knowing that everyone will be seeing their pictures and videos, they behave accordingly. Last year, some girls in Florida decided to video themselves beating up a schoolmate so that they could upload the video to YouTube and get high ratings. The virtual now determines the real; teens are living for the screen, not for the reality of which it is but an image.
But there is a much more troubling side-effect to “growing up online.” The very life views of the teenager are now being taught by the Facebook world. What does it mean to be someone’s friend? How ought one to speak, to undertake and carry on a relationship, or to interact with others? What is most important in life? What does it mean to be fulfilled and successful? Where do one’s best interests lie?
Answers to all of these questions are persistently inculcated through the social networking sub-culture, in the advertisements, the underlying architecture, and the expressions of the teens themselves. Perhaps we have here a picture of what society would be if it were run by pre-adults unformed by the norms of civilized culture. Teen Society = millions of teenagers + social networking 44 hours a week – adult or family interaction – constraints of civilization – impositions of reality.
The book Generation MySpace accurately distills into four sentences the message that is being sold to children by the mass media and which social networking caters to:7
· “I must be entertained all of the time.” The first message teens have heard loud and all too clear is that entertainment comes above all else....Now we are more alienated and disconnected from them than ever before.
· If you’ve got it, flaunt it. The second message teens are embracing is that modesty is uncool–a thing of the past, stifling, disempowering–and that privacy is lame....Because screen culture is one that is rooted in a peek-a-boo mentality anchored in images, today’s teens are expert exhibitionists, vigilant voyeurs, and novice narcissists.
· Happiness is a glamorous adult. The pursuit is for excitement, not substance.
· Success means being a consumer.
I have to buy in order to be validated.
The end product of this media parenting is today’s “screenager”: multi-tasking, self-consumed, allergic to responsibility. And people are noticing. Lady Susan Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, recently stated:
My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment....I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf.8
Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, states:
We are seeing children’s brain development damaged because they don’t engage in the activity they have engaged in for millennia. I’m not against technology and computers. But before they start social networking, they need to learn to make real relationships with people.9
The Pope himself is a bit worried about the phenomenon. When the Vatican announced its YouTube channel, Benedict XVI had this to say:
It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop online friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation.10
Cutting through all of the media glamour, the simple fact is that the worth of each individual is determined by the strength of his relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. But if relationship extends no further than the clicking of a button, then it will be surprising indeed if someone is able to put forth the serious, sacrificial effort required to maintain fidelity to Our Lord and remain in the state of grace. “Being friends” in the online world is no more profound than eating jello. Meanwhile, Our Lord asks for and deserves nothing less than a lifelong commitment. But how could a MySpace screenager have any notion of such a commitment? Take up your camera and promote yourself is a far cry from take up your cross and follow Me.
The traditional preludes to intimacy between couples, the life-long vow of fidelity we call marriage being the most important among them, are long gone. Now the coupling starts with puberty. Catholic morality demands psychological maturity and financial stability before approaching courtship; in the online world, once you are physically ready, you need only a partner to exercise the rights of the married. That person is your friend, until they get removed from your Top 8.11
With the amazing perspicacity often shown forth in encyclicals, Pope Pius XI had this to say 80 years ago:
The most grave disease by which our age is oppressed, and at the same time the fruitful source of all the evils deplored by every man of good heart, is that levity and thoughtlessness which carry men hither and thither through devious ways. Hence comes the constant and passionate absorption in external things; hence, the insatiable thirst for riches and pleasures that gradually weakens and extinguishes in the minds of men the desire for more excellent goods, and so entangles them in outward and fleeting things that it forbids them to think of eternal truths, and of the Divine laws, and of God Himself, the one beginning and end of all created things.12
Living an empty life online, there is no room for the fullness of the Faith.
Modern Medicine & PBS Frontline
I cannot help but breathe a sigh of weariness in sorting through the mountain of statistics and case studies that modern authors amass in their analysis of our cultural destruction. There are always two implicit premises: a) arguments from common sense or first principles, i.e., “non-scientific” or “non-experimental” arguments, are completely out of the question–no deduction, only induction; b) the ultimate good that we must all strive for is making things “safe” for our children.
It is as if there were a clinic of patients, all afflicted with various forms of cancer, and the doctor refuses to treat them for anything but skin disease. For the modern world, the problem is always material, and so is the solution. We are to talk to kids and their parents, hear their concerns and interests, and respond with behavioral counseling, pharmaceuticals, and awareness training. But today’s youth are well enmeshed in materiality; what they need is to be freed from it. They need spirituality, not safety; morality, not practicality. They do not need a balm that cleanses their skin, but medicine that penetrates to their very soul.
That being said, all of the practical examples and data do have their use. In early 2008, PBS Frontline aired a documentary called Growing up Online.13 It does a good job of choosing several real teenagers in a sleepy New Jersey town to showcase typical paths which teens follow online. It begins with the words, “In Morris, NJ, as in the rest of the U.S., 90% of teens are online, immersed in a world largely hidden from their parents,” and presents the following real life examples:
The Deadbeat. Greg, the first teenager presented, demonstrates at a general level what underlies all the teens that follow him: complete consumption in an unreal, online world, cut off even from the actual house in which he lives. His father comments that sending him an e-mail is a more effective way of communicating with him than going up to his room, while his mother states, “He relies on us so heavily; I don’t know if he realizes it. It’s just part of his persona.” Greg himself explains how he has no time to read Hamlet; he just looks up the Spark Notes, an online shortcut to writing papers.14
The Anorexic. Sara was a quiet, introverted girl, but now is different. Soon after going online, she received a message from a boy asking her to take a picture of herself naked, and he would do the same. Sara says,
I didn’t feel comfortable, so he said, ok, just send one with minimal clothing, so I went to the bathroom and did it. It was just like a picture; it didn’t really mean anything...
...I have this one life that’s like fake: happy go-lucky. And then there’s the real me. When I’m online, I’m the real person. I’m completely 100% me. I’ll talk about anything to these people because I know they won’t judge me.
Sara has a problem with anorexia that her parents do not know about. She goes online to such forums as “thin is beautiful” where anorexics who want to be anorexic meet one another. They deify anorexia, calling her the goddess “Ana” and compose psalms to her. Sara gets tips and tricks for binging, purging, starving, that makes living with an eating disorder easier. “Part of me is completely Ana and part of me is anti-Ana.” Sometimes she finds it disgusting; at other times she is all for it. She mentions at the end of her interview with Frontline,
I hope this is not the rest of my life, because I know that I should not be living like this.
The Porn Star. Jessica was living just a plain, ordinary life, but was unhappy. So she went online to recreate herself.
I didn’t want to be known as Jess. I wanted to be the total opposite. That just reminded me of the girl who had no friends. I just never fit the mold. I would try and try and try; it just wasn’t me. I felt so insecure. I felt like an alien, in this all white bread town.
She created a MySpace account and became the Goth porn star Autumn Edows. Her parents knew she was constantly in her room, but did not know what she was doing in there; she did not eat with them, did not spend time with them. She became hugely popular online.
I didn’t feel like myself, but I liked the fact that I didn’t feel like myself. I felt like I was famous.
Jessica’s school principal was alerted to her online activity and called her parents. At first, the parents were shocked and made her delete everything. Jessica comments,
I was completely erased from that whole world. To have something that is that meaningful for you...to have it taken away is like your worst nightmare.
Her modern dad says,
This was an important lesson for her. You need to know who to trust. You have to be careful about where this information goes and how people perceive this information and how they can change the context of it.
Later, Jessica’s parents let her put everything back online.
The Suicide. Ryan Halligan was a victim of cyberbullying. His father John states:
I clearly made a mistake putting that computer in his room. I allowed the computer to become too much of his life.
At the age of 13, Ryan was ridiculed online and it carried over to his school. He was called a fag, then flirted with by the most popular girl only to be made fun of when he returned the attention. Ryan started to look up sites on death and suicide, including how to commit suicide and the best means of suicide for one’s personality. He was encouraged in this pursuit by online “friends.” He ended up taking his life at the age of 13 by hanging himself. His father knew nothing about his life online.
If I were asked to distill the message of this article into a few words, it would be this: parents, wake up. Survival on the natural and supernatural levels in the Internet world requires both maturity and a well-established faith. Your teenagers have neither. My motivation to write this article did not come from reading St. Thomas’s Summa, but from going online and seeing our traditional Catholic youth swimming with the current of the world on Facebook. It is tragic to see traditional Catholic parents putting forth so much effort to lead Catholic lives, and then handing themselves and their children over to the enemy. In many cases, the compromise prevents for their children any hope of a vocation and makes for terrible mistakes before and after marriage, including the choice of one’s partner; in some cases, this naiveté is fatal.
Some see our cultural wasteland as a Garden of Paradise or at least as a safe playground for their children. Children’s unattended access to technology–Internet, iPod, CD player, PSP, cell phone, TV, DVD player, email account, MySpace, Facebook–amounts to parental delinquency. In a matter of seconds online, an eager teenager can access pornography, obscenity, and satanic music, among other things. Just as trust can be destroyed in a moment, so can innocence. A transfusion of the spirit of the world through technology leads to destruction of faith, lack of interest in things spiritual, alienation from parents, and overall emptying of meaning from life, paradoxically hidden under the appearance of finding meaning.
It is not that technology is wrong in itself. It is just that it has the potential for working powerful and quick destruction. Handing such means over to teenagers, immature, unstable, curious, and rebellious as they are, is like giving a gas can and matches to a child with a corresponding request to be careful, a request which may pacify the guilty conscience of remiss parents, but in no way helps the child. Many parents themselves have problems being responsible with technology; the danger is multiplied for children.
To close with some suggestions
The Internet: If it’s a necessity in the home, then make it public, limited, and filtered.15 There should be no unattended access to technology before proven maturity.
Life: Have a real one! Build true relationships with your spouse, your friends, and with Our Lord Himself. They are real to the degree that we give our time and ourselves for our friends.
Culture: Read a book. Play or sing music. Mix entertainment with education; the former should elevate and enrich, not empty.
The preceding article first appeared in the July 2009 issue of the outstanding Catholic magazine, The Angelus. It is being reproduced here in The Remnant with permission of both author and publisher. The Angelus is a monthly magazine and can be contacted online at www.angeluspress.org
1 There is actually an online game called “Second Life” of less popularity than social networking wherein one creates an avatar of oneself that lives a virtual life in a virtual world.
2 Twitter is a means of sending a quick 140-character or less message to friends at every instant to let them know what you are doing.
3 Larry D. Rosen, Me, MySpace, and I (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p.6.
4 Ibid., p.9.
5 Ibid., p.16.
6 Cf. http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/04/07/sexting.busts/index.html?iref=mpstoryview.
7 Candice Kelsey, Generation MySpace (New York: Marlowe & Co., 2007), pp. xxiii-xxv.
8 See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1153583/ Social-websites-harm-childrens-brains- Chilling-warning-parents-neuroscientist.html.
9 Cited in Ibid.
10 See http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2009/0124/ 1232474679217.html. The Vatican has recently banned any access of MySpace and Facebook by its employees. See http://www.catholiccourier.com/tmp1.cfm?nid=76&articleid=107627
11 To quote from Me, MySpace, and I, p. 41: “MySpace’s Top 8 feature encourages adolescents to identify their best friends–at least their best friends at the moment–by prominently displaying the pictures of these eight friends on the main MySpace page....Fourteen-year-old high school freshman Sandie told me that she changes her Top 8 daily, ‘depending on who I talked to that day and who I am trying to get to know.’ ...Sixteen-year-old Danae told me, ‘I hate Top 8. I feel so obligated sometimes. If a friend puts me on their Top 8 and I don’t do the same, I feel kinda bad....So instead, I put my favorite bands on my Top 8.’”
12 Mens Nostra, December 20,1929, §4.
13 The show may be viewed in its entirety at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/kidsonline.
14 When I visited sparknotes.com, two articles of interest were “Waste Your Time: We’ll Show You How” and “Adults Are Boring: Don’t Become One.” Three out of 16 suggestions for the former article were “Take a Facebook quiz.”
15 Free Internet web filtering software may even be obtained at http://www.k9webprotection.com.