Is Facebook killing people and ruining the church?
Last Saturday, the Telegraph carried an interview with Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster. In the interview, the archbishop said that he worried that Facebook and MySpace are causing young people to lose social skills, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to problems that can lead to suicide. The next day, Bishop Alan Wilson responded on his blog with a couple of helpful points. First, he reminds us that reporters and headline writers don’t always reflect the real nature of comments made in interviews, so we should pay very careful attention to what the archbishop actually said.
Then Wilson goes on to look at the substance of the argument: do social media stunt our skills at making enduring human relationships?
The problem, like the joy, isn’t the media, but the human beings. Bullying is bullying, whatever the medium. There are people whose would say their quality of life has been spoiled, with zero accountability, by, say, the activities of Daily Mail reporters. Do teenagers pile up superficial relationships only to become devastated when they let them down? I’m not so sure this problem is getting worse. My children are considerably better socialised than I was, as a middle class boy the same age. They generally care far more about relationships and humanity, and the time they spend MSN-ing or whatever is time I would have spent with my nose in a book — not exactly the best way to build nourishing relationships, either.
The bishop concludes with some upside of skills cultivated by the pervasive connections to social media our youth enjoy:
Young people I meet around have often developed a very sharp critical nose about the information they see around them. That’s why they don’t usually go anywhere near newspapers — partly because the print comes off, but mainly because they reject the tyranny of relying on one, once-a-day, source. They are often fascinated by the concept of Truth, but for them it is emergent, rather than inductive. That raises serious difficulties for anyone with a message to sell, whether Church or Media Mogul.
I find that people who make pronouncements about Facebook and other media usually haven’t tried them out. Are there problems? Sure. But there are also some new, good skills and relationships being cultivated. This whole debate reminds me of some seventeenth- and eighteenth-century manuscript sermons I read when I had a student job at the Beinecke Library during grad school at Yale. Preachers back then routinely complained about how young people couldn’t properly sit through a sermon, moaning that “words went in one ear and out the other.”
While I don’t want to ignore some real problems that may be created by modern social media, it’s also worth noting that one thing has remained constant for nearly the whole of recorded history: older people have criticized younger people for not being like them. And yet civilization rolls on.
UPDATE: For full disclosure, it should be noted that the parish I serve is on Facebook. Then again, so is the Vatican. Good thing the archbishop isn’t on Facebook, or the Pope might be unfriending him.