When I first read this I was a trifled irked. There's nothing I dislike more than a holier-than-thou holy man. But then I realised that I actually agreed with what the Archbish was saying. And that, believe me, is a first.
I have opined frequently about social networking sites and have used this blog to vent my spleen on a number of occasions. My biggest beef is that they encourage people to to offer far too much personal information about themselves and give up their right to privacy. Most worrying of all, is the fact that these sites are run by some quite unsavoury characters (you should read this previous post) and there are some quite serious copyright issues around the images and info uploaded by unwitting networkers. On a personal note, I simply don't have the time to run a virtual farm, throw a sheep at someone or take a compatability test. The one exception I've always made is Twitter, which seems to have got it right. Just 140 character entries and no personal data surrendered. I now use Twitter in preference to email or texting a lot of the time as it's quick and instant.
Many teenage suicides are copycat suicides. Again, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Copycat suicide has been around for so long that it even has a academic name: The Werther Effect (Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) was published in 1774 and its publication was followed by many reports of young men shooting themselves. It was widely believed that these suicides were copies of the death of the novel's hero). It's well-known that suicide rates rise a little every time a teen idol or a role model takes their own life. But it is more common among peer groups. Which is why social networking sites were blamed for the seven copycat suicides in Bridgend, South Wales recently. In this tragic instance it seems that tributes left on websites such as Bebo had a significant impact. David Gunnell, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Bristol, said that research had shown a connection between reports of suicide in the media and copycat deaths, and it was likely that discussions of suicide on websites would have a similar effect: 'Young people are more likely to see and read items concerning suicide on the internet than they are in newspapers. One can extrapolate from wider research on responses to newspaper reporting that a medium like Bebo will have an impact on suicidal behaviour in young people.'
It's claimed that copycat suicidees take their own lives because they identify with the person they're copying. That's a lot easier to do when the person is a peer and not a millionnaire rock star. As Daniel Finkelstein points out here: 'The internet allows peer-to-peer publication. It allows the transmission of news about people very similar to you. One would expect it to be a stronger means of passing along the suicide bug. It is, of course, ridiculous to "blame" the internet, even supposing we were certain of the exact circumstances in these terrible cases. You can't talk about the internet as if it were a person able to bear moral responsibility. And we do know that these sorts of deaths have been happening without the internet for centuries. Yet there is a reason to hypothesise that in the internet era we will see more of them.'
What we need to look at is not the vehicle - the internet - but the atitudes of those who use social networking sites to bully and cajole. And the mental state of those people who use these sites as an alternative to real-life encounters. And, indeed, society as a whole. I was born in an age before mobile phones and computers; consequently, I still value personal contact above all other kinds of contact. I use social networking as a tool for business ... and as a way of meeting people I might never have met before. The photos that appear throughout this post show some of my friends on Twitter. I knew some of them before I joined Twitter. Several of them I've met solely through Twitter. I have, I believe, struck a good balance between real-life and virtual life.
As I said at the outset, I do agree with what some of what Archbishop Nichols says. However, we mustn't blame the internet. Rather, we should be looking at the lack of lifeskills that drives a young person to live their life behind an avatar.