Are Social Networks, an Appropriate Environment for Our Children? Key Insights from the World Meeting of Families

During the 10th World Meeting of Families in Rome social networks as an “environment” for our children, was discussed by Gustavo Huguenin & Fabiola Goulart.

They reflected on the following question: "social networks, an environment for our children?". 

Here are their insights:

Let's point out three keywords that help our families understand social media. But first we would like to introduce ourselves. My name is Gustavo. And I'm Fabiola. We are Brazilians and our history is very connected with our mission, especially with the World Youth Day (WYD), which transformed our lives. We started our courtship in preparation for WYD in Rio de Janeiro, in our beloved country, and we were not afraid to make a definitive decision for marriage. 

We went through a period when we were 1,500 km apart, but it was through social networks that we continued to get to know each other and build our love. We got married in 2015, and a month later we arrived in Krakow, Poland, where we spent the first year of marriage as volunteers to collaborate with WYD 2016. Once again, social networks brought us closer to family and friends. In 2019 we also had the honor of collaborating with WYD in Panama. 

In all of them, we work in the communication sector of the Local Organizing Committee, coordinating and advising on social networks. And this is how we witnessed millions of interactions, where young people become part of the same community, where they rejoice and encourage one another, where there is fraternity and communion. It was beautiful to see so many young people from different cultures and languages ​​expressing the face of Christ in the digital environment. 

We saw hope for these new connected generations. Who are these young people today who inhabit the networks? We can call them 'digital natives', 'chat generation', hyperconnected generation. If you have children of this generation, it is very likely that they live together on social media, and you know that well, right? 

Your kids don't watch TV because they want to watch videos online. Your children may not go out much, but they feel full of friends. Your kids end up joining new platforms that you may not even understand yet. Any resemblance to your family? Anyone who understands networks as means of communication such as television, cinema and periodicals is wrong… The internet is not a tool, but an environment where we go and interact, called by Pope John Paul II as the “first modern Areopagus” (Redemptoris Missio 37.) Cyberspace has fundamentally changed the way young people spend time, share information and converse with each other.

Potential Negative Impact

Potential risks of social media include exposure to harmful or inappropriate content such as sex, drugs, violence; exposure to dangerous people; cyberbullying and its risk factor for depression and suicide; excessive sharing of personal data; exposure to excessive advertisements; privacy concerns; Identity theft; and interference in quality of life. More than that, networks can "make communication within the family and between families difficult when they become a way of avoiding being heard, of isolating themselves despite physical presence, of saturating every moment of silence and waiting" (Dia World of Communications, 2015). However, the important contribution that networks bring is undeniable. Here, your children can stay connected to family and friends, meet new friends with common interests, find community and support for specific activities, such as living their faith, increasing school learning, and expressing themselves. We all have a fundamental desire to relate to people. Your children want to feel part of something, of their own community, with their friends, and that's how they discover who they are. In Fratelli Tutti we see that "the internet can offer greater possibilities for encounter and solidarity among all; and this is a good thing, it is a gift from God" (Fratelli Tutti 205). 

We believe that the Church has given us the answer to family discernment through three key words: identity, dialogue, and witness. The first keyword is identity. The world changes constantly but somehow it's always the same. Who are we in the face of this new world proposed by social media? Technology can change many things in our behavior, but it does not change the human heart. The networks are nothing more than extensions of our life, they present who we really are, and they are formed by people. When we are on the networks, a little bit of who we are is shared. Pope Benedict XVI already warned of the danger of lack of authenticity in the online environment, especially among young people, with all the anxieties, contradictions and creativity typical of those who open themselves with enthusiasm and curiosity to new life experiences. He stated in the 2011 World Communications Day message: "The increasing involvement in the digital areopagus audience of social networks leads to the establishment of new forms of interpersonal relationship, influences the perception of oneself and therefore inevitably raises the question not only of the integrity of one's actions, but also of the authenticity of one's being. [...] In the search for sharing, for friendships, we are faced with the challenge of being authentic, faithful to themselves, without giving in to the illusion of building artificially the public "profile" itself".

Knowing who we are and knowing the values ​​that we carry and that we do not give up are fundamental points to have a balanced life on social networks. Only when we know who we are, where we came from and where we are going can we share our lives with others. Do we know our identity? Do we help our children in this quest? A couple of friends shared a concern with us. They said: "we are afraid that our daughter will grow up in an individualistic way, in this selfie culture, but we want her to have attitudes towards the collective, because we are called to live in community". What values ​​do we nurture in our families so that our children make good choices and live an authentic Christian identity in the networks? The second key is dialogue, closeness between parents and children. We should all reflect on the use of social media and encourage dialogue, but we need to understand what drives children to be active in this environment. What they want? Why are they on social media? How do you feel? For any young person, browsing the internet or accessing social networks seems to be something natural. They seem to be born knowing how to use these resources. Even babies can browse videos and choose what they want to watch. However, knowing how to use networks does not mean knowing how to interpret them. 

If social networks are made up of people, the parents' life experience can help children to discern relationships in the digital environment. On the other hand, children can help parents understand the logic of networks and include them in their online life. One to learn from the other. And that's why parents and older people need to find ways to talk. It is necessary to understand the world of these teenagers, to know how to listen to them, to build bridges of dialogue. After all, parents want to monitor their kids about activity and time spent online, right? And this is genuine; it is an instinct of care and protection. Some use parental control, a feature available on some platforms to restrict children's access. However, as soon as a new network appears, they are already in it. And if the father or mother is not open to dialogue, perhaps they will only find out about this new "digital environment" after a long time. "By discovering this vital center that is the encounter (within the family), we will know how to guide our relationship with technologies and that of our children, instead of letting ourselves be dragged along by them", says the Holy Father. We talk about identity and dialogue. And our third word is testimony. At the lunch with young people during WYD 2016, a dear friend asked Pope Francis what he could say to an atheist friend and received the following answer: "Evangelizing is giving this witness: I live like this, because I believe in Jesus Christ; I awaken in you the curiosity of the question 'but why do you do these things?'. Because I believe in Jesus Christ and I proclaim Jesus Christ and not only with the Word but with the life”. 

Education for networks is important for your child to be an important witness in today's world, which lacks young models of faith and a life of Christian values ​​and virtues. Have you ever heard the expression "young people listen to young people"? If a young person carries values ​​and virtues with them in their online profiles, then they will be able to influence other young people, being "influencers of God", as the Holy Father called at the last World Youth Day in Panama. Let's also see what a beautiful witness the young Blessed Carlo Acutis left us and his evangelization with websites in the 90's. Knowing who he was, knowing his identity and what moved his heart, he used online tools to talk about his love for the Eucharist . There has never been such an opportunity to expand our social circle and influence for us to use for good and the promotion of an authentic witness of life. After all, how can the world believe in Christian values ​​if we don't demonstrate them in "real life"? By the way, this also applies to you, parents: what witness have you given in the digital environment? How much time do you dedicate to the smartphone? How much do you expose your family's life on social media?

How much do you expose your family's life on social media? Have you respected your children's right to privacy? May each father and mother be the model of conscious presence on social networks for their children. Identity, dialogue, and witness. Three keys that complement each other for a family path of discernment. May we have our Christian identity rooted in our families, where we live in full dialogue and are not afraid to show the world an authentic and joyful witness of life. Amoris Laetitia tells us: “A very important task for families is to educate in the capacity to wait. It's not about banning children from playing with electronic devices, but finding a way to instill in them the ability to not apply digital speed to all areas of life.” (cf. AL 275). Whether or not your children are old enough to be on social media, one thing is unquestionable: they want to be in this digital environment. The solution is not to prohibit, but to educate and guide in a responsible way and to educate about the risks, dangers and also the positive possibilities. Exercise healthy supervision, dialogue, and be friends with your children, much closer than any friendships they can find on social media.

Let's be careful looking for a ready-made formula to answer this panel's question. May our sharing promote reflection on this topic, and inspire our communities and families. Let us not forget to ask the Holy Spirit for discernment and help, to help the vocation of fathers and mothers, and to enlighten our children in this discernment. Prayer will help us find answers. We conclude with a phrase from our dear Pope Francis: "as Christians we are called to manifest, even in the networks, the communion that marks our identity as believers, opening the way to dialogue, to encounter, to smile" (Twitter, 2 June 2019). Thank you very much!