Monday, August 10, 2009

Friendship is not a commodity

Last week Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols - head honcho of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain - expressed the opinion that social networking websites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace lured teenagers into 'transient' relationships that could leave them suicidal. In an interview with the Telegraph newspaper he said, 'Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships. They throw themselves into a friendship or network of friendships, then it collapses and they're desolate. It's an all or nothing syndrome that you have to have in an attempt to shore up an identity; a collection of friends about whom you can talk and even boast. But friendship is not a commodity, friendship is something that is hard work and enduring when it's right.'

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.

The first teenager

The question the Archbishop raised was about transient friendships and the harm they do when they collapse. While I can't argue with that, I wonder whether we can justify taking the simple, easy option and blame social networking sites? I suspect that alienated teenagers have been committing suicide since the first teenager evolved. It's certainly not a new phenomenon but, if anything, it has been on a downward turn recently. In the United Kingdom the suicide rate for males aged between 15 and 24 rose substantially between 1976 to 1991 (when it peaked at 15.8 deaths per 100,000 people), but then declined by 28% in the seven year period from 1997-2003, according to a study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Manchester, showed that the decline was particularly marked in young males, where rates declined by 35%. It would be interesting to see if there's been a significant rise since social networking sites appeared.

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.


Andrew Kerr said...

We scare kids from a young age about being careful when going out and about. We wrap them in cotton wool so when the time come to meet other in the world they do not have the social skills.
I myself played out and about from 7+ but would I let my children do so....sadly not. I don't know why?
To compensate they go to Brownies.And hope real world social skills will be gained by this.
The worlds not as scary as media makes out. Twitter etc can be fun but not a replacement for real life and friends.
I hope this make sense.

Stevyn Colgan said...

It makes perfect sense Andrew. I've just been doing some research and all the facts show that the world is a hell of a lot safer now than it has ever been. There are still bad guys and bad girls. But fewer than before. We just get to hear about them more. I let my kids go out despite media fears and all three are now in their 20s, balanced, happy, sociable kids. A good read: 'How to live dangerously' by Warwick Cairns. A really balanced view.

Winifred said...

The social networking sites are a great way to keep in touch as long as you don't get obsessed by them and replace your personal life with them.

It's all about balance really and making sure that children know what's safe and what's not. Keeping them in the house isn't the best way to teach children about the dangers out in the world. However I can understand that parents find it to let go. I'm baby sitting an 11 year old grandchild this summer and it's not easy.

chris hale said...

Who's that ugly beggar with Cordelia Will...oh. It's me.

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punk in writing said...

Hey, that's meee! All sweaty and touristy, but still. :D

Anonymous said...

Well... that's quiet interessting but honestly i have a hard time determining it... I'm wondering what others have to say....