The Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols has been reported today as saying that social network sites such as facebook, MySpace or Bebo encourage young people to put too much emphasis on the number of friends they have rather than on the quality of their relationships. Unsurprisingly this story has gained a lot of press, for example check out Ruth Gledhill.
According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar the average person has five “core” friends, 10 more in immediate circles, and two more acquaintance rings of 35 and 100. Many young people, and adults, have many more than 150 friends on their social network page, but not every ‘friend’ on a social network site is a true friend. Social networking is not about friendship per se, but a way of communicating within a friendship.
Whilst in my experience as a youth worker I am aware of some young people ‘adding friends’ to their profiles to be seen to have a higher number of friends, it is also clear that many young people use social networking sites to communicate within existing personal friendships.
The Archbishop links social networking with suicides through cyber bullying. Cyber bullying is a serious issue. But we must remember that cyber bullying existed before social networks were being regularly used by teenagers, and even before that for hundreds of years bullying has sadly affected young people. Bullying will, unfortunately, arise in whatever format young people find to communicate with each other. It is therefore not necessarily social network sites per se that give rise to bullying itself.
Positive steps need to be taken to ensure that young people and their parents are equipped with information on how to use the internet safely. For example, we at Tonbridge Baptist Church are in partnership with Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council and Kent Police in running an evening for parents looking at the use of the internet, and how to keep their children safe whilst on the internet.
Some terrible things are done on the internet, but it would be wrong to miss the positive aspects that social networking can bring, let me give just two examples: I’ve worked with youngsters who were into heavy metal music, and found few local physical friends who had a similar passion, and yet through social networking sites had found like-minded teenagers and discovered a whole load of new bands to listen to; some youngsters I work with have attended national events or residential activities and have been able to carry on and develop friendships with people they met there with much more ease than I could have at their age because of social networking sites.