Did you happen to catch the recent Newsweek article titled “Is the Internet Making Us Crazy?” Just in case you didn’t, here’s a small excerpt:
The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.
Kind of scary, right? An online forum of Catholic women to which I belong was recently discussing Tony Dokoupil’s piece, and people appeared to be divided over a) whether there’s actually really even a problem at all, and b) how to successfully navigate that problem. No one can deny that the internet has the potential for issues, not least of which is the wasting of time, but one could also argue that the internet also has great capacity for good. So is it both/and or either/or?
Of course I’ve written about this before. And still I have no real answers. I suppose it’s something that both intrigues and bothers me because, well, I’m a blogger meaning I do a fair amount of communicating online. I utilize Facebook and Twitter, I have an account with Klout (though I have no real clue what any of that data actually means), and were it not for the internet I’d have no platform whatsoever. I’ve also been significantly blessed by things I’ve discovered via the internet, not least of which is the Catholic Church. Because were it not for things like papal encyclicals, the catechism, and people willing to share their experiences online, well, I’d probably not be Catholic today.
But still the question persists of proper use of the internet, and of how the digital world ought to intersect with face-to-face life. What happens for example when local parish community is replaced with a smattering of two-dimensional Facebook friends? Is it healthy to forgo the joy and work of belonging to a monthly formation group in lieu of an online forum? Are we capable of making the space in our schedules, hearts and minds to open our homes to friends and family, or are we perpetually too distracted by the virtual world at our fingertips? How is our Catholic worldview shaped when instead of looking to wise priests and confessors and the counsel of good friends, we turn to a popular website, podcast or blog?
And, more specifically, what of Catholic women? Mothers in particular? Are our needs for connection and friendship being met through our laptop screens? Is our contribution to the culture and, more locally, our community being enhanced or hindered by the life we’ve forged with people we’ll never actually meet? Has compulsively browsing Facebook replaced the coffee shop, the public square, the dinner table, and relationship in general?
This, I think, is the danger of the internet. This is what we stand to lose when we invest too heavily in one thing and neglect the other. There is simply no replacement for real community. As a blogger and user of social media I am constantly asking myself how much is too much? What is necessary vs. superfluous? I enjoy interacting with friends online, but my time is valuable and limited, and my life really ought to be ordered towards authentic in-person dialogue and togetherness. The beautiful thing about real interaction is that it never feels like a waste of time, ever. When a family joins us at our table for a meal, or when we spend most of our Sunday afternoon, every Sunday afternoon, in the parish hall catching up with people while our kids eat themselves into a doughnut coma, we are living life, engaging in community, building bridges and nourishing friendships.
So I don’t so much worry that the internet is going to make me crazy or alter my brain, as eclipse better things. The sky isn’t falling, but all too often we’re missing its beauty. I wonder if some of the problems they’re seeing in the lives of internet users today are less the result of surfing the web, and more the fallout from the opportunity cost of not having true and life-giving friendships. It is a tool, like anything else, but of all tools it must be handled with care and remain in its proper place. We must continue the long work of pursuing community and relationship with those in our everyday lives because that is what will strengthen our faith and enrich our human experience. Granted it’s not always easy, convenient or clear-cut, but it matters. A lot.
As always, it’s funny writing this sort of thing in an online publication, but then again, I’m not advocating for an all-out internet fast nor am I arguing, like some, that the internet is inherently worthless. I am saying that maintaining perspective and remaining rooted primarily in the gritty, beautiful reality of local Catholic community is essential in part because it frees us up to enjoy the internet in ways that don’t diminish our personhood or steal our best energies. It has its rightful place.
We will always be better for living a well-ordered life that is rich in love and connection, per God’s design. I suspect that it is then, and only then, when we can truly bring our best to the virtual table of online interaction.