“Our technology has come to the point where it is ruling our lives; however, without it we would be lost.”
These words were written by a perceptive tenth grader as part of an assignment to answer the question, “How has online social networking influenced your relationships with friends and family?”
Like their parents and grandparents, young people are taking notice of how social networking is impacting their lives for good and bad. Most agree it is a useful tool to keep in touch with friends and family and to communicate important and timely messages. But their essays also reflect a deep concern for how social media affects the quality of their relationships.
This is a two-part article, gleaned from reviewing the essays of a Seattle-area class of tenth graders. It is not a formal research study. Rather, it is meant to generate discussion on a topic important to all children, teenagers, and adults.
Below are the most discussed benefits of social networking according to these tenth graders, including quotes from their essays. In a similar format, you can also read their reflections on the disadvantages of social networking in my blog at Roots of Action.
Breaks the Ice with New Relationships
“We never talked in person until months after online chatting. We got to know each other by asking questions, over text. I think the reason we never talked in person was because we were a little embarrassed at first to approach one another, and without talking face-to-face it made it easier to connect and get to know each other.”
“If popularity or a widespread social position is something that is important to a person, or if someone just wants to look their best in a world where what is posted is permanent in some form, social networking is a great addition to modern life.”
“Given the delicate ‘coming of age’ passage we are currently undergoing, judgment is a relevant force in our lives right now. Having the capability to showcase only your best features could be a definite pro.”
“Putting out an announcement on a social network is much easier than going around and telling people the message. Many high school sports teams use this feature to keep its members up to date on changing events. I have found it to be quite useful as I receive a notification as soon as something happens.”
“I think social networking has made me closer to friends. I was on Facebook for a while before I got a cell phone, and it made it easier for me to make plans and connect with people. I have conversations with my friends that are just as real as the conversations we have face to face.”
“I like being able to get opinions from a wide group of people with similar interests, information I wouldn't be able to get otherwise.”
“Through social networking I have come to understand more about different lifestyles and have learned a lot from information given to me. For example, I have Facebook friends who live in different countries and I like reading their perspectives and what their interests are. Sometimes my friends share links with me about new music artists, and I find myself surprised that I'm interested in music that I didn't think I would like.”
“You can forget about the stress of real life and immerse yourself in a world where you have 500 friends and can simply ignore the people who don't like you.”
“When I text my friends, I always spell everything correctly due to auto correct helping me out. This practice teaches me to learn to spell new words, and with the help of a dictionary right there on my phone, I also learn what these words mean.”
“It can be the best source of spreading current events that would typically take at least an hour for a newspaper to write about or a TV station to cover. This is true in the case of Twitter where users can post a short message that is under 140 characters.”
Striking a Healthy Balance
As you read the second part of this article on how tenth graders perceived the disadvantages of social networking, you’ll see the many conflicts they face in the new Digital Age. Behind each benefit, there is a profound shadow-side that must be managed.
Like these high school students, musician and child advocate Raffi Cavoukian advocates for balance and deeper understanding. He also sounds an alarm for needed reform. In his article at Huffington Post Lightweb Darkweb: Three Reasons to Reform Social Media Before it Re-Forms Us (and book of the same name), he challenges us as parents, educators, and citizens, to take responsibility for the healthy development of children and to make hard choices about reforming social media now, before it is too late. In his book, Raffi argues, “At a time when humanity needs to be at its best and smartest—to see the big picture—we’re profoundly distracted by triviality.” He believes we should support and nurture young people in ways that help them recognize, understand, and balance the obvious light and dark sides of the web.
As one student remarked, “Social networking should be balanced and not so time demanding. People should remember the purpose of face-to-face conversations[…]By having a good balance of the use of social networking, the positive influences of social networking can possibly outweigh the negative influences.”
Frankly, I was impressed with these students’ insights and their abilities to see both sides of what has become a balancing act of our connected world. But insights are not nearly enough to ensure the safety and healthy development of our children.
In the coming months, I plan to interview Raffi for more details about his ideas, which I know have evolved from conversations with great thinkers and researchers around the world.
What will we do to help young people reap the benefits of social networking and use it wisely? How will we prevent the web from diminishing their relationships and potentially harming their futures?
--A special thanks to the students who contributed their voices to this article.
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education and civic engagement. Subscribe to Updates at Roots of Action to receive email notices of Marilyn’s articles.
©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.
Photo Credit: Thammarat Sukwat