Cool Pope Francis, beloved by young people the world over for his selfies, love of soccer, and impromptu papal phone calls, showed his 77 years Tuesday night when he told a group of German altar servers to get off their smartphones and do something more productive with their lives.
“Maybe many young people waste too many hours on futile things,” the pope said, according to a translation by Reuters. “Our life is made up of time, and time is a gift from God, so it is important that it be used in good and fruitful actions.”
What type of actions, exactly, does the pope find so bad and unfruitful? He specifically cited “chatting on the Internet or with smartphones” and “watching TV soap operas” (do young people even watch those anymore?), though he also alluded, vaguely, to using technology in a way that “distract[s] attention away from what is really important.”
Admittedly, the pope has something of a point here: If you ever spend more than five minutes in a room with someone between the ages of roughly 12 and 25, you too will want to throw their phones in the nearest baptismal font. Teens, per Pew’s Internet Project, send an average of 60 texts a day. And according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, young adults spend over seven hours a day in front of a screen of some kind — even as their unstructured play time plunges closer to zero.
Dear young people, do not be mediocre; the Christian life challenges us with great ideals.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) July 15, 2014
But this is also a bit ironic, coming from a man who seemed determined to break the stuffiness of the papacy and embrace some of the mores — if not the values — of modern, everyday life. Surely a pope who once said the Internet was a “gift from God” understands that “chatting on the Internet or with smartphones” can be just as productive, and just as worthwhile, as chatting in daily life. And presumably a guy with 4.3 million Twitter followers (on his English account alone!), knows that even the most self-evidently shallow and self-involved of digital activities can have meaningful reverberations for the individual and her network alike.
Just last January, the psychologist and researcher Ira Hyman cautioned against demonizing the smartphone habits of young adults; what older people see as addiction or nonsense, he wrote, is often just young people keeping in touch with their friends. That assessment jibes well with prior research in the field, which has found users of social networking sites are more trusting and have more close relationships than their less connected (more productive?) peers.
“This isn’t addiction. This is social interaction,” Hyman wrote at the time. “Older adults, like me, shouldn’t make judgments.”