Voices: Navigating, evangelizing the Digital Continent

Editor’s note: There are few people whom I respect more than Helen Osman, my former boss and former editor of the Catholic Spirit. She recently returned to Austin to give a talk on New Media, which was so good I knew I had to share it with our readers. However, instead of reporting on it, I am letting her tell the story in her own words. A condensed and slightly modified version of her talk is below. 

By Helen Osman
Guest Columnist

Media ecologists –– the folks who study the landscape of media –– have been defining new media (text messages, Internet, Facebook, Twitter and the like) as a new space for awhile. They speak of digital natives –– those who grew up with Facebook and texting. My children were in college at the same time as Mark Zuckerberg, the college student who started Facebook in 2004. They were actually at South by Southwest in Austin in 2007 when Twitter exploded onto the scene. They are digital natives. 
I was a decent enough parent to be somewhat aware of these new communication systems and to be a bit worried about them. But I also realized that there are many good aspects to this digital world. I am a digital immigrant. I may look for a recipe online, but then I print it out so I can save it. I am still evolving, however; now I am using my iPad to store my recipes!
But social media hasn’t just caught the attention of sociologists and others who study culture. Pope Francis’ Twitter handle is one of the most popular in the English-speaking world. Pope Benedict XVI actually coined a new term for this world: the Digital Continent. Referencing the work of media ecologists, he noted the Digital Continent has natives, immigrants and explorers. He also challenged us to be missionaries on the Digital Continent. 
Being a missionary isn’t easy work. You have to learn the language, the customs, what’s “kosher” and what is a major faux pas. Then on top of that you need to be able to express Christ’s message in a relevant and revealing manner.
Where do we start in this Digital Continent? I’d like to suggest that we start with a perspective that we can be wise missionaries, bringing our decades of experience in this thing called life. We may not know what Facebook is, but we do know what it means to be a friend. 
What do we model to our young people? We know that values are caught, not taught. Are they mimicking us, how we fight with our spouses, with our friends and co-workers and other family members?  
How many young people are yearning for someone to recognize them, to treat them as an adult, and use our darker behavior to try to emulate adulthood or at least get our attention? It’s great that the Internet is forcing us to think about them, but the Internet is not the problem. It’s just one tool in an ongoing battle by our children –– a battle for attention, validation, and status.
There are some great resources out there to help us adults teach our children healthy, holy and holistic behavior in the digital realm. One of the joys of my current work at the USCCB has been getting to meet people employed at such nefarious organizations as Facebook and Google and actually working with them on ways to help our children and our families be better equipped to handle the digital continent. 
I am also fortunate to work with folks from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in developing a website that carries some great resources: www.faithandsafety.org. It was built with grant money from the Catholic Communication Campaign and includes a wealth of information. You can also follow the site on Facebook and Twitter to receive regular updates. 
Finally, I’d like to offer some practical suggestions for us as missionaries for Christ on the Digital Continent.
1.     If you can’t e-mail something nice, don’t e-mail at all. E-mail is a wonderful way to keep in touch with family and friends. However, the words that we use can be deeply hurtful. Before firing off an e-mail always ask yourself: Does this e-mail and the words I used reflect who I really am, as a child of God? Does it speak mercy, joy and compassion, three virtues that Pope Francis is giving a renewed emphasis? Does it contain gossip, slander or anything that I would be ashamed about afterward? Could my e-mail be misunderstood? Is e-mail the best way to communicate on this issue or is a phone call or personal visit a better method to avoid any misunderstanding?
2.     Get digitally enculturated. Be aware of what young people are doing online: Talk to them about how they use digital media, know the sites they are visiting and have a sense of their online activities. “Friend” and “follow” young people, especially your own children, on social media sites. But be more than a lurker. Many social media services let you report inappropriate, harassing content. On Facebook, you can learn more at facebook.com/report.
3.     Understand school rules. Some schools have developed policies on uses of technology that may affect a child’s online behavior in and out of the classroom. Especially if you have school-age children, please know the policies and discuss them with your children.
4.     Use the digital space to be fully Catholic. Let’s use our faith both online and offline to help our children learn empathy. Let’s help them understand another person’s perspective and what they may be going through. This is where our creed and our lived examples really serve us well. One way we can do this is to help kids understand the line between funny and cruel. Kids’ online communication can be purposely ambiguous or cruel, which can lead to misunderstandings. If you see online drama beginning to unfold, speak with your children immediately. 
5.     Show young people how to stop the madness. Kids may not want to get involved if they see cyberbullying because they are afraid the bully will turn on them. However, there are ways to help children learn to reach out to a victim, get an adult involved and prevent more cruel behavior. Tell them that they don’t have to respond or retaliate directly to cyberbullying, but don’t tell them to ignore the bullying; blame the child who is being bullied; or tell them to physically fight back. Help them know that you, and other adults, are going to help them develop a game plan. Let them know it is not only safe, but smart and Christian to find a way to stop bullying.
6.     Parents: Be parents. Please establish rules about technology use from appropriate use of computers to cell phones to Smart TVs. Especially with cell phones, we often don’t do a good job of setting usage guidelines for our children. Please discuss important topics such as privacy, inappropriate texting and photo sharing and safety basics. 
7.     Use the village. Talk to your children about who they can turn to when there is trouble brewing. Kids need a responsible adult they can talk to and to confide in, and while the parent would be best, it may be a teacher, an aunt or a neighbor.
As Catholics we believe we, as a community are the Body of Christ, I pray that we can all rely on one another to “have our backs” as we navigate through this new world of the Digital Continent.
Helen Osman is the Secretary of Communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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