Pope warns against dangers of Facebook, Twitter

Pope Benedict XVI has issued a warning to users of Facebook and Twitter, urging Roman Catholics not to find themselves trapped in a "parallel existence" online.

In a message released today to welcome the Catholic church's World Day of Communications on 5th June, the 83-year-old pontiff offered a cautious blessing to social networking, but told believers, "It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives."

Under the title, 'Truth, proclamation and authenticity in the digital age', the former Cardinal Ratzinger admitted that online media provided "unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship", but urged the faithful not to get sucked into a virtual life online at the expense of a real one.

"Who is my 'neighbour' in this new world?" asked the Pope, adding: "Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world "other" than the one in which we live?"

While the pontiff doesn't mention any site by name, the liberal sprinkling of terms such as 'friends', 'sharing' and 'public profile' throughout his message provides more than a hint of who he has in mind.

The Pope doesn't have a Facebook account of his own - and is thus unlikely to have experienced the joys of 'poking' anyone first-hand.

Not that he should worry too much just yet. With a little over 500 million users, Zuckerberg's mob have a little way to go before they catch up with the Pope's legion of followers.

According to figures released in 2010 by the Catholic church's Pontifical Yearbook, Roman Catholics number 1.16 billion, or 17.4 per cent of the world's population.