Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hard to imagine life without digital tools and networks. Our screens became even more indispensable during lockdown, necessary for accessing content and maintaining connections between home and work, school, as well as checking in on friends and family. In the last year and a half, the coronavirus both caused and exposed division in our country: the virus itself became politicized and Americans viewed its threat through a partisan lens; the burdens of first responders and dependent care fell unevenly across racial and class lines; mental illness spiked as a result of anxiety, depression, and social isolation as people endured displacement from their normal routines, roles, and relationships. Now that we are looking ahead to life after the pandemic, we face pressing questions like: How will this experience invite us to rethink our previous patterns of work-life balance, jammed social calendars, and church attendance? What kind of people—personally and collectively—do we want to become? And, importantly: What will be our future relationship with screens?
Screens have become essential tools for managing duties at work and keeping our families afloat. They help us manage and become more efficient with countless tasks, provide access to endless amounts of information and entertainment, and keep us connected to loved ones and others in our social networks. While eminently useful, our phones, tablets, and laptops are also producing a number of troublesome effects. Studies show not just a correlative but a causative link between time spent on social media and higher rates of mental and emotional distress. Social media can contribute to a compare-and-despair dynamic that undercuts self-worth and reinforces loneliness.
Couples are reporting lower rates of intimacy and higher rates of infidelity thanks to screens, which are increasingly cited in divorce filings as a reason for dissolving the marriage. Stressed parents might rely more on screens to occupy their children at home, while they’re waiting for an appointment, or when traveling, but researchers find that this is contributing to screen addiction, changing brain structures (for both cognitive skills and emotional intelligence) and exposing children to inappropriate content. Pornography viewing was up 24 percent last year and the average age of first exposure to porn is under 10 years old.
Then there are the online echo chambers riddled with people adopting self-righteous indignation or spouting blame, anonymous accounts spewing vitriol, and the nefarious spread of fake news and misinformation shared intentionally by some and unwittingly by others. All of these habits exacerbate a social context mired in political polarization, racial tension, and widespread distrust.
Free access to online content and social media platforms come with a disturbing trade-off: the unchecked collection of user data and loss of privacy. As the saying goes, if the product is free, you are the product. While this might seem inconsequential to the average user, it portends a dark future wherein not only is all your digital activity recorded, but it is used to predict your behavior and moreover, to influence it. Algorithms are carefully crafted to present you with content and connections you are inclined to engage and share, not just filtering out what may be unpleasant, but perspectives that might challenge or even contradict your worldview. When we train ourselves to use technology to make life ever more comfortable and convenient, we risk becoming like Goldilocks who expects everything catered exactly to our taste, available on-demand.
This is a far cry from the “culture of encounter” that Pope Francis has championed, the call to bring people together across differences in the pursuit of solidarity and resist what he laments as the “globalization of indifference” in the face of human suffering, unjust inequalities, and ecological destruction.
In last year’s encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis dedicated several paragraphs to warning against remaining naïve to the dangers of digital tools and networks. He contends, “they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity” (no. 43).
What would a more virtuous use of our screens look like? It begins by exercising prudence, the practical wisdom necessary to discern the most fitting way to employ these tools as part of our duty to love God, self, and others. For example, how are the Beatitudes and Jesus’ emphasis on humility, mercy, and reconciliation (e.g., Matt. 5:1–12; Luke 6:20–26) reflected in what I view and share online? Does my use of digital technology and networks leave me feeling more or less inclined to feel grateful and be generous with others? Am I modeling how to engage with others online in ways that foster mutual respect and co-responsibility?
The virtue of temperance helps us determine how much is enough, aiming to find balance between excess and deficiency. It can help us reconsider how much time we spend on screens and if we’re using them more for meaningful connection or mindless distraction, constructive preparation or anxious procrastination. How much do I pay attention to the ways that my screen time might prevent me from being present to the people in my life offline, especially parents and siblings, spouses and children, as well as others who might rely on me? Practicing temperance can foster a more purposeful approach to picking up our phone or tablet so we’re not endlessly swiping or doomscrolling, but instead being intentional about using this time toward a desired outcome or goal.
In light of the way screens have negatively impacted our identity and relationships, the virtue of fidelity helps us do justice to our obligations to ourselves and others. Historically, fidelity has been understood as a virtuous loyalty to kin and other close ties, but it is worth noting that Jesus’s teaching and healing ministry undermines a strict separation between what we owe our relatives and friends as compared to others in need (e.g., Mark 10:29–30, Matt. 19:29, Luke 18:29–30). Family bonds can ensnare us in preoccupation with security and status while also buffering us from the poor and marginalized. Insofar as following Jesus implies conversion (Luke 5:32) and costliness (Mark 8:34), Christians today should ask themselves whether and how our screens are more of an asset or liability for loving God by loving our neighbor, recalling in particular that Jesus explicitly states salvation relies on actions marked by courage, mercy, generosity, and boundary-breaking solidarity with the neediest members of God’s single human family (Luke 10:25–37 and Matt. 25:31–46).
In a social context that accentuates self-doubt and amplifies insecurity, we should reflect on what it means to be made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26) in a digital age. Not only does this bestow on each and all an inherent dignity, but it reminds us that we are reflections and representatives of a Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a communion of love that is offered, received, and returned. To be fully human is to be made for relationships marked by equality, mutuality, and fidelity that mirrors what we see in the Trinity. By this logic, we might also think of sin less as rule-breaking and more as causing harm to these kinds of relationships, whether by acts of commission or omission. It is fitting, then, to ask ourselves: How are these digital tools and networks affecting my ability to become more attentive and responsive to the needs of others, especially those that Pope Francis prophetically denounces as subject to a “throwaway culture” that degrades and deprives some members of the human family: more often women than men, senior citizens more than the young, and disproportionately people of color and indigenous communities, those living with disabilities, as well as the economically exploited and excluded?
For Saint Paul, the heart of being like Christ is to eschew self-interest and choose instead to “humbly regard others as more important than yourself” (Phil. 2:3). This is the antithesis of the Goldilocks-like expectation for abundant convenience, security, and status. It pushes us out of our comfort zone and impels us on a path oriented toward restoring dignity, safety, and trust, building relationships marked by inclusion, mutual respect, and co-responsibility, and healing wounds caused by indifference, fear, hatred, shame, and violence.
While the various digital tools and networks that shape our daily routines are not inherently good or bad, neither are they neutral. How and why we use them and to what effect matters for how they shape the persons we become, the relationships we cultivate, and the society we build. Spiritual and moral maturity requires becoming more tuned in to how our screens affect our thoughts, feelings, and actions—as well as those of others. Since our character is formed most deeply by shared practices in relationships with others, then we should take time to personally reflect and collectively discuss how we can use these tools and networks to become more informed, engaged, and empowered to work creatively and collaboratively to reset bonds broken by distrust and division.
Pope Francis suggests that surviving this pandemic presents us with a singular opportunity to dream together of what we most desire for the future (no. 8). In the face of so many challenges to personal health and well-being, social solidarity, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and politics for the global common good, it is clear that individual liberty and a “live and let live” mentality is wholly inadequate to the task of creating conditions for everyone to flourish. Instead of a posture of tolerance that makes room for others, we need to find more ways to share life together—online and offline—to learn from one another about the needs that exist in our communities as well as the resources available to meet them.
A few times in Fratelli Tutti, the pope insists, “no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together” (nos. 32, 137). It’s worth adding that our screens will not save us, either. But if we adjust how we use them, it could help us deliver on the vision of being members of a “single family dwelling in a common home” (no. 17). No family is perfect or immune from conflict, but all are called to love, honor, and serve one another. To do that, we will have to adopt a more virtuous approach to our screens.
Marcus Mescher is associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He specializes in Catholic social teaching and moral formation and is the author of The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity (Orbis, 2020).