A survey in Yours Magazine, quoted in Monday’s Telegraph, made for sad reading. Teenagers, it said, as are lonely as the elderly because they spend more of their time on social networking websites such as Facebook than they do going out to meet real people and develop real friendships. The survey found that 6 out of 10 teenagers find it difficult to find and make friends, despite having an average of 243 ‘Friends’ on Facebook, and that they experience loneliness as a result.
This survey highlights one of the central dangers of social networking – namely that, if it is allowed to run unchecked, it can be extremely isolating, and result in fewer enriching relationships rather than more, as the medium promises. It is easy to see how anyone – let alone a teenager, who is still in the process of discovering him or herself, and working out how to relate to others – can mistake the casualness of interaction online, and the immediacy of response, for real friendship; in actual fact, although it is possible to keep up with information online, it stands to reason that it is much, much harder to maintain or develop relationships. Where are the non-verbal clues to what someone is really thinking and feeling? Where is the empathy communicated in a smile or a hug or a touch?
Facebook most certainly has its place, and at its best can enable instant communication in a way which allows people to make good use of their time to keep in touch with people with whom they would otherwise fall out of contact. But it should never replace actual ‘in person’ communication, and we need to help protect young people in particular against its excesses. This is especially the case in regard to the disconnect it can create between real and online worlds which can so easily develop: it is very easy to withdraw to an artificial world which seems in our control, at the click of a button. Teenagehood is a time for exploration and development, and an absolutely central part of this is the development of how to deal with, and live with, other people. Let’s make sure we get the message out, loud and clear, that no matter how challenging this is, it has to be done in real life, face-to-face.