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Pope Francis greets students and staff from a high school in Rome at the Vatican April 13, encouraging students to break their phone addiction and spend more time on real communication and personal reflection. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo: Time to put our digital lives in order

By 
  • April 29, 2019

There’s a line in Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation to young people Christus Vivit that jumps out at me. When he writes that “digital media can expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and gradual loss of contact with concrete reality,” he is speaking to my own millennial heart.

In 2012, as part of a continuing education night course, I wrote a feature on the addictive, unhealthy nature of social media. At that time, psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Ballon from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), who was involved in treating users with compulsive tendencies, told me that social media is a “public health issue — just like teaching people about drugs.”

Seven years later, society’s problematic patterns of social media overconsumption have become normalized, but that doesn’t mean the behaviour fuelling them is normal. Far from it.

Internet and social media addiction are still not officially recognized as psychological disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. However, some researchers have identified and acknowledged that patterns of continued use are “capable of altering the mood, motivation, concentration and producing a dissociating and disinhibiting experience for users.” The problem is real.

At a time when, for many of us, a collective fixation with social media has become unhealthy, finding balance has never been more important. So what can we do to counter the constant compulsion to check the interwebs?

For starters, we need to be more mindful about our usage. Some tactics that have worked for me include disabling alerts so that I’m not continually being reminded to check my feeds. I’ve also deleted the Facebook app on my phone. As a result, logging in requires much more of a conscious effort. A tip from CAMH is to limit usage at meal times and before bed time, and to proactively decide to spend some time “tech-free.”

Pope Francis offers this advice: “Free yourself from the dependence on your cellphone, please,” he recently told a group of high school students. “Being addicted to noise and if there is no noise, I am not comfortable. But when you become a slave to your phone, you lose your freedom.”

This sentiment reminded me of an experience I had at the Royal Ontario Museum at an event called Friday Night Live. Standing in the main hall, four young women screamed, “Oh my gosh!” in unison, high-fiving one another and excitedly pointing up at an approximately 40-foot projection of something they had tweeted.

During Friday Night Live, the museum is transformed into a trendy nightclub and lounge. Mingling among rare collections of dinosaur bones, mummified organs and gemstones, beer-sipping guests are encouraged to post images using a common hashtag.

As crowds gathered around the projected images, some people took photos of their tweets, others uploaded those moments in time to Facebook. The music was blaring and, beyond the groups of social networkers, the dance floor was packed, strobe lights in full swing. A couple toggled their attention between their phones and the images above, fully immersed in the technology.

Absorbing the scenes playing out on the screen, I didn’t even have to venture upstairs to view the priceless exhibits. I could stay put, talk to no one and soak it all in, as if by osmosis. A woman eating a sandwich and sitting alone at a table next to me seemed to be doing the same.

The Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation is fittingly titled Christus Vivit (“Christ is alive”). The reality of Christ’s resurrection is a monumental truth that is a key part of our lives as Catholics.

As we journey through the Easter season, we should consider spending our time on activities that enhance our lives and the lives of those around us, and put us in the right mind frame to appreciate the many gifts we’ve been given. While social media can help to inform us about world news and help keep us in touch with friends, moderation is key. There’s utility and then there’s the act of mindlessly scrolling through a news feed — which is often the end result we love to hate.

Pope Francis couldn’t be more right when he talks about the perils of the digital environment, urging us “find ways to pass from virtual contact to good and healthy communication.” It’s up to us to navigate these choppy digital waters responsibly.

(Santilli-Raimondo is a communications co-ordinator in the Office of Public Relations and Communications at the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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