(RNS) — Many millennials have been introduced to the personal technology that takes care of their tamagots during recess for the first time. It wasn’t until later that the internet revolution, smartphones and social media invaded every aspect of their lives, from relationships to health to music and faith. Today, meditation podcasts, TikTok sermons, and Friday prayer (Jumah) live streams are available to everyone.
A study in Canada suggests that this latest generation to experience a smartphone-free childhood still has a firm foothold in the real world, at least when it comes to religion.
The study, led by University of Waterloo sociologist Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, found that a sizable minority of millennials in the US and Canada (32%) turn to religious or spiritual pursuits digital at least once a month. But only 5% said they did so without engaging in forms of religion or spirituality in person once a month or more.
“For the most part, people are both involved in person and complementing that through digital religion,” Wilkins-Laflamme explained.
The findings will comfort religious leaders who fear technology is replacing religiosity, said Pauline Cheong, a professor at Arizona State University who studies religion and communication technologies but was not involved in the Canadian study. “(Digital religion) is not a disruption or a huge tear in the social fabric,” Cheong said. “There are a lot of savvy religious users who use it to complement existing links (with religion).
A millennial herself, Wilkins-Laflamme set out to assess the extent to which her generation, which is less likely to participate in organized religion than previous generations, engages in online religion. She surveyed 2,514 respondents in March 2019. (So the study doesn’t take into account how the pandemic may have changed the digital habits of millennials at a time when many places of worship were online.)
“The general conclusion for me was that digital religion is definitely a thing, but it’s something that only a portion of the (millennial) population does,” Wilkins-Laflamme said.
Millennials also participate in digital religion to varying degrees. Wilkins-Laflamme left the definition of digital religion largely to respondents; this can include anything from using a Bible app to viewing a spiritually-themed Instagram reel. Forty-one percent of US respondents said they passively consume any type of religious or spiritual digital content at least once a month, while only 32% of US respondents take the time to post about religion or spirituality on social networks each month.
Millennials in Canada, where the population is less religious overall, were active at lower rates, with 29% taking digital religious content and 17% posting it.
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It’s not yet clear whether Gen Z, who are more digitally native than Millennials, will engage as much in real-world religion as their elders. Paul McClure, a sociologist who studies religion and technology at Lynchburg University, applauded the Wilkins-Laflamme study but noted that his own research shows that greater internet use is associated with higher levels inferior in religiosity.
His latest study, published in June, found that among young Americans aged 13 to 19, increased screen time is negatively associated with religious commitment, even when their parents are highly religious. “We cannot say with certainty that screen-based media actively makes adolescents less religious,” McClure’s study states, “but it is clear that screen time displaces or replaces belief, identity, and belief. religious practice among adolescents from religious families”.
Cheong agrees that while millennials are taking advantage of new virtual resources, digital advancements alone won’t be enough to appeal to younger generations. “Moving forward, religious organizations and leaders need to do what they can to maintain and maintain trust, to cultivate healthy relationships,” she said.
This may mean trying to bypass their smartphones and engage young people face-to-face. But the Wilkins-Laflamme study suggests that any religious leader interested in connecting with both Gen Z and Millennials needs to take digital religion seriously. “Religious groups that don’t have an online presence will really struggle with those two generations,” she said.
Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.
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