Time to put our digital lives in order

Person working on tabletWritten by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on April 29, 2019

There’s a line in Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation to young people Christus Vivit that jumps out at me. When he writes that “digital media can expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and gradual loss of contact with concrete reality,” he is speaking to my own millennial heart.

In 2012, as part of a continuing education night course, I wrote a feature on the addictive, unhealthy nature of social media. At that time, psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Ballon from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), who was involved in treating users with compulsive tendencies, told me that social media is a “public health issue — just like teaching people about drugs.”

Seven years later, society’s problematic patterns of social media overconsumption have become normalized, but that doesn’t mean the behaviour fuelling them is normal. Far from it.

Internet and social media addiction are still not officially recognized as psychological disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. However, some researchers have identified and acknowledged that patterns of continued use are “capable of altering the mood, motivation, concentration and producing a dissociating and disinhibiting experience for users.” The problem is real.

At a time when, for many of us, a collective fixation with social media has become unhealthy, finding balance has never been more important. So what can we do to counter the constant compulsion to check the interwebs?

For starters, we need to be more mindful about our usage. Some tactics that have worked for me include disabling alerts so that I’m not continually being reminded to check my feeds. I’ve also deleted the Facebook app on my phone. As a result, logging in requires much more of a conscious effort. A tip from CAMH is to limit usage at meal times and before bed time, and to proactively decide to spend some time “tech-free.”

Pope Francis offers this advice: “Free yourself from the dependence on your cellphone, please,” he recently told a group of high school students. “Being addicted to noise and if there is no noise, I am not comfortable. But when you become a slave to your phone, you lose your freedom.”

This sentiment reminded me of an experience I had at the Royal Ontario Museum at an event called Friday Night Live. Standing in the main hall, four young women screamed, “Oh my gosh!” in unison, high-fiving one another and excitedly pointing up at an approximately 40-foot projection of something they had tweeted.

During Friday Night Live, the museum is transformed into a trendy nightclub and lounge. Mingling among rare collections of dinosaur bones, mummified organs and gemstones, beer-sipping guests are encouraged to post images using a common hashtag.

As crowds gathered around the projected images, some people took photos of their tweets, others uploaded those moments in time to Facebook. The music was blaring and, beyond the groups of social networkers, the dance floor was packed, strobe lights in full swing. A couple toggled their attention between their phones and the images above, fully immersed in the technology.

Absorbing the scenes playing out on the screen, I didn’t even have to venture upstairs to view the priceless exhibits. I could stay put, talk to no one and soak it all in, as if by osmosis. A woman eating a sandwich and sitting alone at a table next to me seemed to be doing the same.

The Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation is fittingly titled Christus Vivit (“Christ is alive”). The reality of Christ’s resurrection is a monumental truth that is a key part of our lives as Catholics.

As we journey through the Easter season, we should consider spending our time on activities that enhance our lives and the lives of those around us, and put us in the right mind frame to appreciate the many gifts we’ve been given. While social media can help to inform us about world news and help keep us in touch with friends, moderation is key. There’s utility and then there’s the act of mindlessly scrolling through a news feed — which is often the end result we love to hate.

Pope Francis couldn’t be more right when he talks about the perils of the digital environment, urging us “find ways to pass from virtual contact to good and healthy communication.” It’s up to us to navigate these choppy digital waters responsibly.

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Comment: Bride’s best laid plans melt in Pope’s hand


Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on July 28

Rome in June is notoriously hot. But Rome in June wearing a wedding veil is even hotter.

Four days after tying the knot in Toronto, my husband Daniele and I were in St. Peter’s Square amid a sea of newlywed lace, chiffon and satin. Along with about 100 other sposi novelli (newlyweds) from around the world, we sweated it out while waiting for Pope Francis to bless our new marriages. (All the marriages were less than two months fresh as that’s the requirement for attendance.)

Seated to the left of the stage at Pope Francis’ weekly general audience, we could see him above a crush of parasols, umbrellas and wide-brimmed sun hats. There was no breeze, only a collective whir from sun-soaked newlyweds furiously fanning each other. I had no idea that a short time later I would be holding the Pope’s hand.

Time crawled by as we waited for the audience to begin and the morning temperature fast approached 30 degrees. Three hours after we arrived in the piazza, the reading began. It was translated into several languages and focused on the example of the saints.

When the general audience ended, some of the newlyweds started to form a line. The opportunity for an individual blessing or a chance to be close to the Pope largely depends on how many newlyweds are in attendance and how busy the Pope is on a particular day, as I was told when calling to book the tickets. With so many excited couples in the square, we figured it was a longshot, yet we shuffled into the queue with high hopes.


The line led us to steps behind the stage and, after waiting about 20 minutes, we could see the Pope making his way towards where our group was gathered. As he got closer, Daniele and I rehearsed a few words we’d prepared just in case we got a chance to speak with him.

Grazie per essere forte e noi saremo forte con te,” was our Italian script, which roughly translates to, “Thank you for being strong and we will be strong with you.”

The Pope is always asking his flock to keep him in their prayers, so we wanted him to know we were with him and to encourage him to keep up his good work because his daily actions embody the Gospel values of love, justice and love of neighbour — to name only a few.

Vatican view 2

As the Pope arrived in front of our group, a space in front of me suddenly opened up. It wasn’t big enough for me to squeeze into the front row but, instinctively, I reached out and, wondrously, I was holding his hand through the crowd. No word of a lie, time seemed to stop. Then I heard Daniele excitedly urging me to share with Pope Francis the words we had prepared.

The chatty newlyweds around us were suddenly silent. He held my hand but I was still a couple of feet away from him. He was smiling at me. It felt too impersonal to just shout out. I hesitated.

Then, overwhelmed by the moment, I blurted out, “Ciao!”

So much for our script.

Still, I’d like to believe he heard me and that his smile widened slightly as a result, but all I know for certain is that I was fighting back tears of joy.

The rest was a blur. I let go of his hand, then found myself holding it a second time before he continued to make his way among the couples.

To say I felt his presence is an understatement. His friendly demeanour is humbling to experience and witness firsthand. His beaming, infectious smile made Daniele and I feel that he was genuinely happy to see us all. We couldn’t stop smiling.

Vatican 3

The Pope exchanged words and, no doubt, dispensed individual blessings to the newlyweds fortunate enough to be wedged in the front row. We watched for a few minutes before taking as many selfies as possible (albeit poorly executed) with the Pope in the background. (Maybe the selfie stick so many vendors tried peddling to us wouldn’t have been such a bad investment after all.)

Walking back through the crowded streets amidst shouts of “Auguri, sposi!” (“Congratulations, newlyweds”) — since we hadn’t made a wardrobe change — we picked up a panino and pizza and took a cab back to our hotel.

The experience was surreal. It was time for a siesta.

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