Mary DeTurris Poust
The Internet, video games and other high-tech forms of entertainment and communication often get a bad rap. In some circles -- usually those inhabited by people over a certain age -- they're seen as anti-social, as time-wasters, as a gateway to violent or pornographic images, as a poor substitute for the good old days when people talked to each other face to face and didn't need a computer screen or high-speed connections to have a good time. Of course, people probably felt the same way about radio and then television when they came on the scene decades ago.
Despite a long list of very real negative issues, there are plenty of positives that come with this brave new world of instant communication.
So, rather than withdraw in fear from the Internet age, individuals and organizations -- the Church included -- must learn to approach it with awareness, a sense of balance and a small dose of suspicion.
As the Church has done throughout its history, it is adapting to changing technologies in order to teach, evangelize and mobilize. From parish Web pages and blogs to diocesan sites filled with links and resources to the Vatican's Web collection of everything from encyclicals to liturgical celebrations, the Church is a formidable presence on the World Wide Web.
"All of it can be a blessing used constructively. There's an amazing wealth of great stuff out there. There are wonderful organizations, so many Catholic groups putting excellent catechetical information out there. There are all sorts of resources for prayer. The resources out there are vast, but obviously you have to keep it all directed," said Jay Dunlap, author of "Raising Kids in the Media Age" (Circle Press, $12.95).
Dunlap calls what is happening in the world today a "convergence of media," meaning that everything is coming together in one place: the Internet.
"All of the media that we have grown up with and that we have known over the last century are becoming part of the Internet. That doesn't mean that those individual things will cease to exist -- we'll still have radios and televisions -- but it's all becoming interconnected," he said.
The challenge for people today, Dunlap told OSV, is to try to avoid becoming part of what he calls the "unimind" of our media-driven society by maintaining or restoring balance in their lives -- and the lives of their children.
"If you are looking at all of our priorities in life -- family relationships, faith life, work, studies, hobbies, exercise -- you can name an awful lot of really important and really wonderful things before you get to entertainment. When it comes to our use of the Internet, while it's often for work purposes, the times we most need to be aware of is the entertainment time," he said. "Once you get plugged in, time can just disappear, seemingly evaporate."
Dominic Aquila, dean of arts and sciences at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, told OSV that what has happened with the Internet and podcasts and other high-tech means of sharing the Good News is a "phenomenal development" that no one could have predicted.
"The Internet is a tool that can create virtual communities, but for the Catholic principle, because we are a religion of incarnation, of Real Presence, virtual communities have to lead to real communities," he said, adding that the simplest but most profound example of that is masstimes.org, a website that allows Catholics to find Mass times at any parish across the United States or around the world by ZIP code, city or country. "That is just a very fundamental way of moving virtual community into real community."
Aquila said that there is a danger that Catholics who become disenchanted with a local parish or priest might retreat from the real world and take up residence in an online Catholic community instead. Virtual communities cannot become a substitute for the real thing, he warned.
"Embodied human encounters are the end game," Aquila said. "In my own odyssey, going from deep suspicion about this whole thing to celebrating its proper uses, always the idea has to be that we must be using this to re-establish real communities. Virtual community is just the means. "
So, how else might a virtual community manifest itself in the real world? Aquila points to the wildly popular movie "The Passion of the Christ," noting that it was through the Internet that interest in this movie was fed, creating a demand that allowed the studio to go over the heads of Hollywood and get it to the masses.
"It was the perfect blend of virtual and real communities," Aquila said. "Without the Internet as accompaniment, that would not have happened."
Dunlap, who is also an instructor at Sacred Heart Apostolic School in Rolling Prairie, Ind., echoed Aquila's comments, saying that the convergence of media and the popularity of video on the Internet is providing the Church with new ways to share its message. He knows of one priest in Washington, D.C., who puts up a weekly two-minute video clip and sends out the link to others. A visit to YouTube, the most popular of video sites, will turn up things like a Jesuit promotional video for vocations or a video for the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney or a clip of a papal audience.
"Video is the language of our culture," said Dunlap. "The Internet is increasingly becoming the way that we are going to be sharing video, and so the Church has to be right there."
Internet: A worldwide, publicly accessible network of millions of computers that allows users to retrieve and send data instantaneously.
World Wide Web: A series of millions of documents (or Web pages) accessed through the Internet with the use of a "browser" such as Internet Explorer or Firefox.
Google: The Web's most popular search engine, which allows users to search for terms on millions of websites almost instantly.
Blog: Short for Web log, a blog is a frequently updated online journal of personal opinions and Web links.
Podcast: Digital audio or video files (created by individuals or media companies) that are downloadable to be played on an iPod or other MP3 device. New episodes of favorite podcasts can be downloaded automatically by users who subscribe to them.
Instant messaging: IM or IMing allows computer users to send text messages in real time, as if having a written conversation. People often make "buddy lists," which allow them to see which of their buddies are at their computers at any given time.
Texting: The act of sending text messages through a cell phone or other handheld device to communicate nonverbally. An entire shorthand exists, allowing texters to both save time and hide information from clueless parents.
Youtube: A site on which people share short video clips. Pornography is forbidden, but many clips can be racy.
Myspace/Facebook: The two most popular social networking sites on the Web, used by millions of (mostly) young people to connect with friends and create their own personal Web presence. Parents are strongly cautioned to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place.
Chat room: A private or semiprivate portion of a website to which users can retreat to have a private conversation. Known to be places where pedophiles are able to take on the persona of a child or teen and gain the trust of a young participant.
Any Catholic looking for information on the Web has an amazing array of sites to choose from. Here are some of the most popular Catholic sites:
No, IMing isn't an obscure Chinese dynasty. IM, or instant messaging, is simply e-mail on hyperdrive. Instead of writing out a message and sending it, IM is just that -- instant communication. You type a message, and the other person can read it immediately. AOL, Yahoo, ICQ, MSN and others all offer free IM, and your computer-savvy kid probably has a screen name on at least one of them.
While monitoring IMs is a bit challenging unless you are willing to stand behind the computer day and night, parents can still maintain control. First, in order to use IMs, a user must create a "buddy list," so check your kids' lists regularly. If there are people on there that you don't know, ask about them. Be sure to tell your kids never to add strangers to their buddy lists and never to give their screen names to strangers.
Using an Internet safety filter to make spot checks of IMs is probably the most effective way to know what your kids are talking about when you aren't looking over their shoulders.
You may want to create your own IM account and put your kids' account on your buddy list. That way you can see when they are online and even send them the occasional message.
Like text messaging, IM uses abbreviations. Some of the most common include:
A few abbreviations to watch for:
-- Woodeene Koenig-Bricker Adapted from "Catholic Parent Know-How: The Internet" (OSV, $1.95)
Mary DeTurris Poust is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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