New research shows digital religion’s down- and upsides during pandemic

Just as there is mounting concern about the effect of smartphones and social media on mental health, the pandemic has raised new questions about the impact of digital religious expressions on emotional and spiritual life. Both religious practitioners and leaders have had mixed views about online religious participation, praising its convenience and far reach while criticizing the medium’s lack of depth and authenticity in addressing people’s spiritual and emotional needs. Recent research on digital religion reflects the divided thinking on this issue, particularly as it has long been known that religious participation has had stronger effects on wellbeing than have beliefs. A study appearing in the journal Sociology of Religion (online in February) seems to be on the side of the skeptics about the shortfalls of digital religion, finding that while in-person religious attendance was associated with better mental and physical health, virtual attendance was not significantly related to either outcome. The study, conducted by researchers Laura Upenieks, Terrence Hill, Gabriel Acevedo, and Harold Koenig, and based on a national probability sample of 1,717 Americans surveyed during 2021, differed from other studies that found some benefit in online religious participation. Upenieks and colleagues found that as people increased their in-person attendance, they experienced lower levels of psychological distress and better self-rated health during the pandemic.

Source: Department of Religious Studies, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The authors argue that in-person attendance could promote health through the traditional mechanisms of social support and the sense of connection people find in congregational worship. Such worshippers could also “leave religious services feeling a greater sense of emotional energy drawn from active participation in religious rituals,” as well as greater feelings of solidarity with fellow members. Meanwhile, a study appearing in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (online in February) found evidence of more positive effects of digital religion and spirituality, even if not matching the effects of in-person religious involvement. Researchers from Southern Methodist and Ariel (Israel) universities focused on the use of religious smartphone apps during the pandemic among quota samples of Americans and Israelis—two populations with high rates of smartphone use. The researchers conducted their own surveys in Israel and the U.S. in late 2020, asking respondents about their smartphone use and other questions to measure spirituality and religion.

Significantly, the researchers, Sidharth Muralidharan, Osnat Roth-Cohen, and Carrie La Ferle, found that smartphone use in itself was not related to experiencing wellbeing during the pandemic. For Americans, they found that religiosity mediated between the use of smartphones and subjective wellbeing, with respondents using the technology to access religious services or connect with fellow believers for prayer and Bible study. For Israeli smartphone users, spirituality (such as feeling the presence of God or experiencing healing) had a more important relationship to wellbeing than did religiosity. The authors write that whereas religiosity is still important in the U.S., in Israel, spirituality is more popular. It may also be that smartphone use is more segmented among different religious groups in Israel, with Orthodox Jews disapproving of the technology for their members. The authors conclude that smartphone “use alone is not sufficient to enhance well-being during a pandemic; instead, smartphone use that satisfied religious or spiritual needs generated favorable outcomes.”

(Sociology of Religion,; Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,