I'm sure that I'm not alone in noticing that more and more people seem to be addicted to their mobile or smartphones these days. Whether it's in shops, restaurants, on public transport or in other public places so many of us are glued to our devices and rarely make eye contact with anyone else at all.
This is particularly true when it comes to young people - the generation who have grown up in our digital age. It's estimated that even three to four year olds now spend an average of eight and a half hours a week online. Twelve to fifteen year olds spend over twenty hours a week, with much of their waking time engaged in social networking via their phones. This has led the Education Policy Unit to suggest that more than a third of British teenagers are now 'extreme internet users'. The Children's Commissioner for England has spoken of the nation's 'digital obesity problem.'
Being able to keep in touch with friends and loved ones or to browse the internet through the phone in your pocket is a truly remarkable thing. But there are also dangers that come with this new way of communicating with each other. More and more young people have been subjected to what has been called 'Cyber bullying'. Children can say the most vile things to each other by text that they probably wouldn't dream of saying face to face. Some have sadly fallen victim to online fraud and grooming. A few have tragically taken their own lives because of online bullying. All the evidence seems to suggest that despite having all this technology at their fingertips our young people are actually getting unhappier!
I purchased my first mobile phone some twenty plus years ago. My wife and I were travelling back from an event in Brecon late one evening when we stopped to help an elderly woman whose car had broken down in one of the remotest parts of the Beacons. It delayed our return home by almost two hours. When we got back my parents, who were baby sitting our then young children, were besides themselves with worry. So I went out the next day to a mobile phone shop and joined the digital age. I use my phone to keep in touch, to make necessary calls when I'm out and about. I occasionally find it helpful to look something up on the internet. But my total use of the phone, each week, wouldn't be more than ten or so minutes. Though the phone in my pocket is not something I would want to do without it certainly doesn't enslave me.
It is great to skype someone far away and to actually see family and friends on the other side of the world when we talk to them through our computer devices; it's also good to keep in touch by email or facebook; but as human beings we are designed for face to face interaction. We are happiest and most fulfilled when we feel that we are accepted and belong within the families, communities and networks we are part of. It's what the Church encourages us to do through what we call fellowship - a right relationship with God and with one another.
When I read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry I sometimes imagine how he actually interacted with the people he ministered to. What was his body language like? How did he react to the women, the poor, the marginalised, the sick who crowded around him? I like to think of him speaking face to face with those he encountered. He looked into the eyes of real people like Zacchaeus, Mary of Magdala, the woman caught in the act of adultery, and Peter following his denial of his Lord in the High Priest's courtyard, and they found healing and salvation through him. It's clear that Jesus came up close and personal to the people he encountered. He calls us to do the same when he says, 'Love one another as I have loved you.'
So perhaps the next time we feel like getting in touch with someone we know; to congratulate them on some good news or to cheer them up after something bad has happened to them; rather than do so through our phone or computer we should pop around to see them or arrange to meet up for a coffee and a chat. For no amount of emails, texts or 'Likes' on Facebook can come anywhere near to being together face to face.
With every blessing,