“What gain . . . is it for someone to win the whole world and forfeit their own life?” (Mark 8:36)
In recent years a routine or, as I prefer to think of it, a tradition has established itself in my life around the Feasts of the Nativity and Resurrection of Our Lord. For the former, I dispatch myself to two Suffolk villages, to the homes of two sets of friends, and for the latter I visit friends in Dorset. It is a tradition that suits me very well and I hope that it may continue for many more years to come.
On Christmas Day 2013, replete with an over-indulgence of roast turkey, Christmas pudding, etc, the evening was spent in front of a roaring log fire in the delightful surroundings of the sitting room of an old cottage looking out on to farmland. The five of us who had partially consumed a splendid lunch together (the remains would be on offer again later!) were joined in the evening by the brother-in-law, nephew and female companion of one of my two hosts, together with a gay couple in their twenties and a young woman who had just completed a 12-hour shift in a local care home. The latter had been dumped by her boyfriend in the days leading up to Christmas, and my hosts were intent that she should not spend the evening alone at home. A most laudable gesture, except that the said young woman upon her arrival found a place on the floor, close to the log burner – more comfortable seating in the small room was by then at a premium – and started exchanging text messages with her friends largely disregarding the people with her in the room. Not only did I find the frantic pressing of buttons distracting, but also I considered it to be very bad manners.
Precisely one week later, I found myself celebrating the arrival of the New Year with friends in Surrey. On that occasion I was astonished to discover that two of the children present, a 10-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, each had the latest iPad and was adept at finding their way around the internet. I can only hope that their parents had taken the precaution of limiting their children’s access to the internet.
Soon after my return home, a newly-released DVD entitled InRealLife landed on my front door mat. InRealLife is a documentary about the impact the internet and the use of smart-phones is having on the lives of British teenagers. The documentary chronicles the collapse of the separation that older generations once experienced between school life, family life and social life. The director, Beeban Kidron, has teenage children of her own and she was becoming increasingly frustrated by the way their attention was constantly fixed on screens, whether of a phone, tablet, laptop, or PC, even to the extent of coming home one day to find half a dozen teenagers in silence in her kitchen each one absorbed by the screen in front of them. She adopted a no-phones-at-the-table rule and a kitchen computer to keep her children off laptops and out of their bedrooms. In spite of this, she was left wondering what such measures achieved when at other times of the day her children’s lives were dominated by unfettered, unmonitored Internet access through the technology of smart-phones.
What the documentary reveals is both disturbing and extremely revealing. From Ryan, aged 16, whose experience of girls is filtered through the lens of the pornography that he views obsessively online, through Page, aged 15, who traded sex in order to recover her stolen phone, to another 15-year-old, Tom, in Morecambe who came out to his parents after meeting his boyfriend online. Ryan, a pupil at an all-boys, Catholic school, explains that he looked to the internet because sex was not discussed at school. He was 10-years-old when he first watched porn and he lost his virginity at the age of 12.
There is something intrinsic to the world of smartphones and the internet that affects the behaviour not just of teenagers but of all of us. We probably think of them as useful tools, things that only do what we want them to do. But, as Kidron points out, these tools affect the user by their very nature, and the appeal of getting ‘likes’ on Facebook or the allure of ‘things’ being sold to us seriously affects our behaviour. The devices we use arrive in our homes with every conceivable audio, visual or vibration alert switched on. Each new app, website, tweet and message simply adds another layer of intrusion – each intrusion cynically designed to obtain a response, and each response creating an appetite for another intrusion. What appears to offer infinite opportunities to participate is enslaving many of us to just one more click, one more fix. What we are left with, on the face of it, is very few people (working for Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc) to whom tens of millions of people have given unfettered, unregulated access to the most intimate parts of our lives – fetishising objects over experience, contact over communication, image over intimacy, the quick over the well-thought through. St Benedict gives an amazing instruction to his followers to “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar” (Rule of St Benedict, chapter 31). This is common to many early monastic rules, stemming from the belief that the only legitimate proprietor of monastic property is God.
The use, therefore, of God’s resources, given to monks for their enjoyment and entrusted to their administration, must be guided by the inspiration of faith. Benedict’s Rule was written in the sixth century, and it represents one’s man attempt to find peace and stability in a troubled and violent world. There is a wisdom contained in the Rule that transcends the centuries and speaks to us all. InRealLife does not pretend to have answers to the many questions it raises, but if it succeeds in starting a discussion – and Kidron, a crossbench peer, has a privileged position in Parliament to start one – then this film-maker has done a good job.
What can we learn from this? Perhaps it is not to be passive in our use of technology. In 2002, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications referred to the internet as a ‘gift of God’ (The Church and Internet, 22 February 2002, 1) and in this regard maybe we should use it, and the technological advances on which we have now come to rely, with the same care and reverence with which we treat the sacred vessels of the altar. In the panel discussion that followed the UK-wide satellite screening of the documentary in September 2013, John Carr, an Online Child Safety Advisor, had this to say about the apps, messages, tweets, etc we access on our devices, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”. Social media are addictive. Research shows they stimulate the dopamine in our brains to keep us coming back for more. And they’re designed to be that way not for our own good but for corporate interests. “What gain . . . is it for someone to win the whole world and forfeit their own life?” (Mark 8:36)
● Benedict Luckhurst