Being online and being kind


During the lockdowns, most Kiwis will have consumed more than their normal portions of online material, including on social media.  

According to a study by Mosh, reported in a New Zealand Herald article, in 2020, Kiwis on average spent seven hours a day online.   

This has its positive aspects, but it can have serious consequences for mental health, especially that of young people. A new international study published in The Lancet, which involved more than 577,000 school-aged children from 42 European and North American countries, found that prolonged periods of screen time had negative impacts on mental health (including depression, anxiety and attention issues), whereas increased physical activity was associated with mental wellbeing. Girls are especially impacted, Women’s Forum Australia reported. 

Another recent article in the UK Telegraph noted that, since 2012 – when Facebook bought Instagram – suicides among girls and young women in the UK have risen by 94 per cent. Depression and self-harm have increased markedly among teenagers of both sexes, but girls are especially afflicted. Health service referrals in the UK for eating disorders are now at their highest rate ever. 

And it is not as if the huge social media platforms are unaware of this, the Telegraph article noted.  

The impartial observer might think there is something inhuman going on here. The observer is partially correct. According to a BBC article, Twitter has removed tens of millions of suspected “bot” (automated) accounts in recent years. A 2020 US study found that nearly half the Twitter accounts spreading messages about the pandemic were likely automated accounts. 

And in Instagram, so-called “beauty filters” use artificial intelligence to detect facial features and automatically edit images, reported a recent ABC article. Young people are increasingly wanting to look like their “filters”, which contributes to ”body dissatisfaction”. 

That is not to say all “bots” are bad. Newsroom reported that Kiwis Jacqueline Comer and Rebecca Lee have created the FairPlayBot – which can be attached to the social media accounts of sportspeople to automatically respond to negative messages with positive ones.  

While not all bots are bad, plenty of human behaviour is. As Pope Francis noted in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, “social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices” (FT44). 

Even some Catholic interaction online is not free of this, the Pope pointed out. Recently, the US bishops launched a resource called “Civilize It: A Better Kind of Politics” aimed at overcoming the polarisation that finds an outlet on social media platforms and elsewhere.  

As Pope Francis said in Fratelli Tutti: “We need constantly to ensure that present-day forms of communication are in fact guiding us to generous encounter with others, to honest pursuit of the whole truth, to service, to closeness to the underprivileged and to the promotion of the common good. As the Bishops of Australia have pointed out, we cannot accept ‘a digital world designed to exploit our weaknesses and bring out the worst in people’.” (FT205) 

One of Pope Francis’ recommendations in the encyclical was that people choose to cultivate kindness. The Pope wrote that St Paul described kindness as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). “He uses the Greek word chrestótes, which describes an attitude that is gentle, pleasant and supportive, not rude or coarse. Individuals who possess this quality help make other people’s lives more bearable, especially by sharing the weight of their problems, needs and fears. This way of treating others can take different forms: an act of kindness, a concern not to offend by word or deed, a readiness to alleviate their burdens. It involves ‘speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation and encouragement’ and not ‘words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn’.” (FT223) 

Let the other fruits of the Holy Spirit also be manifest in Christian people at this time – love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  

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Michael Otto

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