Pope Francis met with a group of high school students this weekend, encouraging them to monitor their cell phone use, so as not to create obstacles to a culture of encounter.
Students from Visconti High School visited with the pope at Paul VI Hall on April 13. The meeting comes a month after the 450th anniversary of the birth of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. The saint was known for his charitable work with the poor, which resulted in him contracting the plague and dying at the age of 23.
The school's building in Rome houses the remains of Gonzaga, who is the patron saint of the youth. Gonzaga himself attended the school. Pope Francis praised the saint for his willingness to encounter those around him, particularly those in need.
In modern times, the pope warned, we must be cautious of anything that tears us away from encounter and authentic relationships. While cell phones can be a valuable tool for communication, they can also reduce our freedom and present an obstacle to true dialogue, he said.
"Free yourself from dependence on your mobile phone, please!" Francis said. "You have certainly heard of the drama of addiction ... This one is very subtle."
"Be careful, as there is the danger that, when the telephone is a drug, communication is reduced to simple 'contacts.' But life is not for 'contacting,' it is for communicating!"
The pope emphasized the importance of the school system as a place of communication, especially between cultures. The Church promotes fraternity, he said, noting that this requires a foundation of freedom, truth, solidarity and justice.
"The dialogue between different cultures and different people enriches a country, enriches the homeland and enables us to move ahead in mutual respect, enables us to go ahead looking at one earth for all, not just for some," he said.
Pope Francis also commented on the important role modesty and fidelity have within friendships. He stressed that love is not solely an emotional reality but a responsibility.
"The sense of modesty refers to a vigilant conscience that defends the dignity of the person and authentic love, precisely so as not to trivialize the language of the body. Faithfulness, then, along with respect for the other, is an indispensable dimension of every true relationship of love, since one cannot play with feelings."
Pope Francis' concerns about cell phone addictions echo those of technology experts in recent years, as computer and phone use have become more prevalent among children and teens, raising concerns about academic performance, social wellbeing and overall quality of life.
Psychologist Jean Twenge, author of "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy -and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood," spoke to CNA last September about trends in technology.
The average daily screen time for teenagers is high above the recommended two hours, Twenge noted. "Beyond that, the risks increase, topping out at the highest levels of use," she said.
She pointed to a 2015 study from the research group Common Sense Media. It stated that over half of teens in the U.S. spent at least four hours in front of a screen and 25 percent were reported to have been in front of a screen for more than eight hours a day, with detrimental effects.
"For example, teens who use electronic devices five or more hours a day are 71 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those using devices less than an hour a day," Twenge said. "They are also 51 percent more likely to not sleep enough. Teens who are online five or more hours a day are twice as likely to be unhappy as those online less than an hour a day."
Pope Francis has spoken on the moderation of technology in the past. During a 2016 homily, he highlighted the damages television and cell phones can have on family encounters.
"In our families, at the dinner table, how many times while eating, do people watch the TV or write messages on their cell phones? Each one is indifferent to that encounter. Even within the heart of society, which is the family, there is no encounter."
He said it is the responsibility of the family to seek out dialogue in which the person is truly seen and heard rather than treated as an object of indifference.
"We are accustomed to a culture of indifference and we must strive and ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter, of a fruitful encounter, of an encounter that restores to each person his or her own dignity as a child of God, the dignity of a living person," he said.