We hear much about the need to evangelise with and through social media, but less about evangelising the world of social media itself. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle believes that social media is, in many ways, ‘a blessing in the world’, but as he recently told the General Conference of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FACB), we should carefully monitor and respond to its formative influence on the lives of young people.

Acting as the special envoy of Pope Francis, Cardinal Tagle shared his concerns about how social media shapes the inner and outer lives of its users—concerns shared by many people today, particularly parents.

We are called to ‘be attentive’ to the landscape of social media, he said, because its presence saturates our societies. When we consume and engage with it uncritically, social media ‘changes our view of the human person in a very subtle way,’ he said, drawing on surveys that reveal how young people think about themselves, other people and their ideas of community.

As well as being ‘a form of exhibition’ for many people, promoting constant self-advertisement, it can lead people to form identities that are grounded in an ‘illusory self-sufficiency’, with users seeking only the affirmation of their own circle. The connections created by this dynamic are tenuous since these ‘virtual’ communities of people are not truly present to one another. Over time, those with whom we disagree are gradually banished from our network of relationships.

Paradoxically, Cardinal Tagle said,

we care less and less about others. Even though we are more connected, we do not communicate more.

It’s no wonder we are struggling with a deep crisis of loneliness in our societies, he said. To truly flourish, we need authentic human relationships.

Cardinal Tagle also pointed to the rise of artificial intelligence and its formative influence on our behaviour. Even things as simple as ‘spell check’ and calculators, he said, have made our minds more reliant on technology, leading to ‘a new form of illiteracy’ and ‘underdevelopment’ that could have profound consequences for the future of our societies.

While not every young person follows these trends, many do, and Cardinal Tagle called the Church to respond to the needs of these young people not only by evangelising through social media but by evangelising and seeking to transform the world of social media itself.

The Church, he suggested, could provide education and formation that helps young people to think critically and empathise deeply. While digital learning has its benefits, the speed at which it happens can often result in a loss of nuance and complexity, he said. Taking the time to read a book slowly, on the other hand, allows us to develop the analytic and contemplative parts of our mind. It brings us into contact with ideas different from our own, and people with whom we disagree.

Cardinal Tagle asked the FACB delegates, ‘Are we developing citizens who will develop a critical intelligence coupled with empathy for those they do not know?’

The use and abuse of social media have been a recurrent theme in Cardinal Tagle’s preaching. At the age of 55, the Filipino prelate became the youngest archbishop to ever become a cardinal, and by 2012 he was social media’s most ‘liked’ cardinal—partly a result of his own adept use of social media platforms. During the 2016 Eucharistic Congress hosted in the Philippines, though, Tagle spoke about the difference between authentic and virtual friendship, and how true friendship takes time and genuine presence.

Cardinal Tagle is currently serving in Rome as the Dicastery for Evangelization’s Pro-Prefect for the Section of First Evangelization. He is also host of ‘The Word Exposed’, a weekly video series breaking open the Sunday Mass readings.

His concerns echo those of Pope Francis, who has spoken about the positives and negatives of social media many times. In his 2019 letter to young people, Christus Vivit, the pope acknowledges that we are no longer in an era of questioning whether or how to use social media: the world is so immersed in it that it has become our daily reality. Young people, therefore, ‘must find ways to pass from virtual contact to good and healthy communication’ (§90).