The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, claims that "transient relationships" on sites like Facebook and MySpace are detrimental to teenagers and society in general. But is he right?
'I think there's a worry that an excessive use or an almost exclusive use of text and emails means that as a society we're losing some of the ability to build interpersonal communication that's necessary for living together and building a community," Archbishop Nichols says, "We're losing social skills, the human interaction skills, how to read a person's mood, to read their body language, how to be patient until the moment is right to make or press a point. Too much exclusive use of electronic information dehumanises what is a very, very important part of community life and living together."
While Nichols was moved to speak on the matter after the death of a 15-year-old girl who committed suicide after being bullied online, his statements seem to imply that all social networking is detrimental for "real world" relationships, as the online universe tends to create a sense of reality that doesn't always translate in the world we live in once we walk away from our screens.
I spent a good part of my day online; most of it for work purposes, but I also connect with many of my friends through keyboards and screens, as we all went our separate ways after college and grad school, and it's the easiest way for all of us to keep in touch. In that way, social networking provides a means to stay connected to people you actually know and love in "real" life, without having to live two blocks away. But what of the connections we make with virtual strangers? The people we speak to everyday that we've never actually met before? Are they helping us, or hurting us?
In some ways, I think the virtual social world is helpful to many of us, myself included, who are painfully shy in real life: it can serve as a type of practice run for actually speaking to people in person. But in other ways, the validation and gratification one gets from doing his or her socialization strictly via the internet can make it seem like going out and actually hanging out with people isn't necessary, which can certainly become a problem if people become too isolated from the world beyond their computer. The retreat into the online world can be especially problematic for those who are being bullied and harassed; the few who choose to spew hateful, awful remarks at an individual suddenly appear to be the spokespeople for the world, if there are no non-internet people around to provide a much needed reality check.
As with most things in life, a balance is needed: if used correctly, social networking sites can help you meet new people in "real life" and serve as a means to continue socializing when you're stuck at work or in a place where it's hard to make new friends. I disagree with Nichols assertion that the online environment makes it harder for us to read moods, or to know when to make a point or to back off; if anything, I've found that I've learned more about how to approach people in certain situations via social networking, as people tend to be more honest and direct in their typing than they are face-to-face. Still, one wonders if that balance is easier for some to find than others—perhaps instead of condemning one form of socialization in favor of another, we should be educating people of all ages on how to live a life both online and off, with healthy boundaries set up to ensure that they don't lose themselves in either realm.
So what say you, commenters? Is social networking hurting your "real world" social skills? Or is it making them stronger?