Bishops offer excellent social media primer

Do you feel like a fish out of water when it comes to what has been referred to as new media or social media? Do you even know what someone is referring to, or do your eyes start to glaze over when they use those terms or ask you how many “friends” you have online? Do you wish you knew how to evangelize more effectively through the Internet? 

If any of these questions grab your attention, then head on over to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and check out new social media guidelines (www.usccb.org/comm/social-media-guidelines.shtml) that the bishops’ communications department recently issued. It’s an excellent resource that can help anyone looking not only to learn more about social media but those of us who are hoping or trying to approach a very powerful communications tool from a Catholic perspective. 

In this document, the bishops give us an overview of the Church and social media, looking at issues such as visibility, accountability and community. There is an entire section of definitions of common online terms for new media neophytes. There is also, within the guidelines, the understanding that with some 500 million users on Facebook alone, the Church needs to be a part of the social media community. If not, it could miss out on a major evangelization opportunity. 

The bishops also see the potential dangers and pitfalls if some instruction is not offered on how to engage the community through these online venues. “The key question that faces each church organization that decides to engage social media is, How will we engage? Careful consideration should be made to determine the particular strengths of each form of social media (blogs, social networks, text messaging, etc.) and the needs of a ministry, parish or organization,” the document reads. 

The USCCB insists that appropriate boundaries have to be established and need to be in sync with diocesan codes of conduct, especially where the area of protecting young people is concerned. Included is information on “Social Networking with Minors,” which is a must-read for parents, as the bishops encourage parental involvement in their children’s social media activity. 

“Parents must have access to everything provided to their children,” the text says. “For example, parents should be made aware of how the social media are being used, be told how to access the sites and be given the opportunity to be copied on all material sent to their children via social networking (including text messages).” 

This is helpful material for parents trying to cope with the many challenges of raising children in the digital age. In my work as a speaker addressing media issues, I find the majority of parents fall into one of either two extreme categories: They are overwhelmed by the technology and leave their children to navigate the Internet on their own, or they severely restrict media usage, especially the computer. The bishops and the Catholic Church, starting with Pope Benedict XVI, say there is a middle ground.  

The USCCB document contains links to the pope’s two most recent World Communications Day statements. Both messages are packed with great insight on how all Catholics should approach this medium of social networking. 

The Church is here to help us navigate through life and hopefully make it safely to the other side. Thanks to the solid media teachings of the pope and the bishops, we now know we don’t have to set out alone in the vast sea of ever-changing computer technology. I, for one, am grateful. 

Teresa Tomeo is the host of Catholic Connection, produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 160.