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Social networking threatens civilization, say middle-aged scientists who’ve never used it

May 2, 2010

😦

For this week’s piece of arbitrary scientific doomsaying, we go to the New York Times, where Hilary Stout reports on new research investigating whether social networking technology is making children’s interactions more shallow (as if children’s interactions could possibly be more shallow):

Last week, the Pew Research Center found that half of American teenagers — defined in the study as ages 12 through 17 — send 50 or more text messages a day and that one third send more than 100 a day. Two thirds of the texters surveyed by the center’s Internet and American Life Project said they were more likely to use their cellphones to text friends than to call them. Fifty-four percent said they text their friends once a day, but only 33 percent said they talk to their friends face-to-face on a daily basis.

–snip–

The question on researchers’ minds is whether all that texting, instant messaging and online social networking allows children to become more connected and supportive of their friends — or whether the quality of their interactions is being diminished without the intimacy and emotional give and take of regular, extended face-to-face time.

I’m sorry–what was that? I was busy sharpening up my pitchfork over here. Please continue.

Writing in The Future of Children, a journal produced through a collaboration between the Brookings Institution and the Woodrow Wilson Center at Princeton University, Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia M. Greenfield, psychologists at California State University, Los Angeles, and U.C.L.A. respectively, noted: “Initial qualitative evidence is that the ease of electronic communication may be making teens less interested in face-to-face communication with their friends. More research is needed to see how widespread this phenomenon is and what it does to the emotional quality of a relationship.”

But the question is important, people who study relationships believe, because close childhood friendships help kids build trust in people outside their families and consequently help lay the groundwork for healthy adult relationships. “These good, close relationships — we can’t allow them to wilt away. They are essential to allowing kids to develop poise and allowing kids to play with their emotions, express emotions, all the functions of support that go with adult relationships,” Professor Parker said.

Quite right, Professor Parker. I say.

I suppose there’s a real concern in here somewhere, but between the tone of the Times piece (typically pompous and out-of-touch–you sort of picture this guy writing it) and the fact that every single new technology seems like a threat to world order, it’s sort of hard to get too worked up over this.

Most of the kids mentioned in the article have what I would consider an excessive number of Facebook friends–one has more than 1,000–which I think underscores the point: No one has that many friends, and even a teenager probably understands that they’re not friends in the traditional, substantive sense. The texting, the Wall posting, all that stuff–is it the primary stuff of their relationships, or is it secondary, just an addendum to the real, face-to-face (or, as this article seems obsessed with, phone-based) friendships? If you’re doing research about this, and you ask a teenager how many times a day he talked to one of his friends face-to-face, what’s he thinking of? The 1,000 “friends” he has on Facebook, or the 990 real friends he has in real life? It seems to me that what social networking allows is being connected superficially with a great deal more people than might otherwise be available to you on any basis. But is it really changing the way teenagers interact with their real friends? Are they all staying inside more–or entirely–to put up Wall postings instead of going to the movies or cadging liquor from someone’s parents or shooting hoops? As much as I love having meaningless stuff to worry about, I’m skeptical.

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