This is part of a series on family life. A Vatican synod on families is set for October.
Father Ignacio Llorente is counseling a man who is jealous of his wife's iPhone. Father Llorente, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Portland, has also seen couples drift apart after one or the other started looking up old love interests on Facebook.
"Technology can be used to purify, to build God's kingdom on earth," says the young priest. "But it can also be dangerous."
Like many pastors, Father Llorente has observed Catholic families facing unprecedented pressure over smart phones and internet, plus the older technologies of television, film and music. Parents are pained because they don't know how to deal with pervasive media, much of which glorifies principles unhelpful to family life and faith.
Father Llorente tells couples and parents that it takes discipline to manage media, especially in its new digital forms. First, he says, there should be no secrets between husbands and wives: couples should have access to each other's smart phones and social media pages. The parish priest urges parents to limit the screen time of their children and to schedule family prayer. Plan game nights and outings and days when the family fasts from technology, he suggests. On movie night, find some good-quality films about saints. At his parish, Father Llorente promotes Lighthouse Media, which provides DVDs and CDs with Catholic themes. The productions are well done, he says.
Alongside taking practical steps and controlling content, parents need to counter something much larger — how digital media themselves have changed the world view of young people.
Philosopher Mitchell Haney says youths are starting to value online space more than flesh and blood life. Haney worries that youths may lose the capacity to care about others and, because of the speed of reaction called for in social media, they may become creatures in impulse, not thinkers. Blogger Brandon Vogt has pointed out that devices like the smart phone and iPad can delude young people into thinking they can control the world, making it fit their desires. Vogt and others fear a new culture of narcissism.
Since the printing press was invented, the Church has warned that media are perilous but has always held out hope for media's power to to good.
The Second Vatican Council's decree on social communications urged all Catholic laity to see to it that media improve society. Social media have made that more possible, but not many Catholics are taking advantage. A survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that only 1 in 10 Americans use Facebook, Twitter or other sites to talk about matters of faith.
In his World Communications Day Message for 2014, Pope Francis urged the world to apply the parable of the Good Samaritan to the digital highway. Calling the internet "a gift from God," he said the web offers “immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity.” The pope said good communicators take the time to listen to and help those who may be cast aside or ignored.
Julie Hershey, a 44-year-old mother of two, puts in hours creating and enforcing rules for screen time. Her 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, who attend All Saints School in Portland, have access to phones, iPads, computer, radio and television. But in the Hershey house, the devices are put aside at homework time and after 8 p.m. Though kids will argue, for example, that they need their phones to calculate math problems, Hershey will point out that there is a plain old calculator at hand. She and her husband review devices whenever they want; kids are required to turn over pass codes. The Hersheys like having a digital record of communications. Besides enforcement, the parents talk about safe media use with their children.
"It's full time job for me," Hershey jokes.
She has felt, like most parents, that device use intrudes on family time. That's why she continues to plan card games and other activities that bring everyone together. When it comes to music, the family can mix technology and togetherness, downloading music and sharing it. No explicit lyrics are allowed.
Father Andrew Thomas of St. Mary Parish in Albany and Cherrie Barnes, the parish's coordinator of youth ministry, have thought about families and media at length. In response to questions from the Sentinel, they sent reflections and suggestions.
"The world that our children have to confront is often in opposition to those values we hold most dear as Catholics. Raising a child in the faith is challenging," said the priest and youth minister. "The importance of doing things together as a family unit has never been more important."
The best way to teach wise media use is by example and lots of communication, the two explain.
"Families in our parish who seem to have the greatest success are those in which the parents are clear about their expectations, limit the amount of time spent on these activities daily, monitor their child’s use and are consistent with logical consequences when violations of use occur," Father Thomas and Barnes say. "An important part of this is that parents are upfront and matter-of-fact about monitoring their use. It creates a sense of security for the youth, allows them to make mistakes (which they will) in a safe environment, to experience consequences for their actions and later, the opportunity to earn their privileges back."
Some parents have held off on giving kids phones until high school, much later than peers.
"When they have granted these privileges, parents have been diligent about teaching internet, phone, and social media safety to their children and in so doing, equip them with the tools they need to be safe and responsible," say the priest and youth leader. Many youth groups are trying to teach teens to use social media for the good. One group of youths could be found roaming Washington Square shopping mall using their phones for a faith-based scavenger hunt that incorporated Twitter and making short movies.