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.

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6 Responses

  1. Like anything else, from studying to sports, from dieting to drinking, time spent online can skew our lives in good or bad ways. How many of us have opened an email that set our hearts pounding in fear or fury? How many people have been guilty of writing poorly-thought-out posts that hurt others? Sure it can be isolating and dangerous — but it can also provide support, friendships, connections and resources to many people who have not been able to find them in their communities. Balance in all things.

  2. Alan Truelove says:

    Facebook – at least – provides a means of discussing ‘official’ CofE positions. The 2sites ‘The Church of England’

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=225438750653#/group.php?gid=2209780920

    and
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=225438750653#/group.php?gid=2258978148

    at least allow Comments — remarkably few so far.
    My Comments therein state the concern of myself & others with recent encroachment of the CofE on Politics, so I won’t repeat it.
    P.S. I’m returning to the East Coast (St Mark’s Capitol Hill DC) after 5 mo.in the Tucson area, & I (& girlfriend) wld like to thank Grace St Paul’s for stimulating & friendly contact-esp. the Pool Party on Sun. which was great!! – and wish GSP well!!
    I will leave this group, but continue to comment on the above Groups, and also the Episcopal group
    http://www.facebook.com/groups.php?id=733570499&__a=1#/group.php?gid=2203981993
    (and also harrass the Anglican Church in North America ACNA as far as possible) Love to all!!

  3. I would like to pose another question for the archbishop, one that has more merit than the Facebook one:

    “Is partisan politics killing people and ruining the church?”

  4. William Jones says:

    Facebook et al, and the internet as a whole give us access to a knowledge base not as easily accessable by any previous generation.

    We are given tools and they are what we make of them. As a mature adult, that would be one on the verge of retirement, I have found that facebook allows me to keep in touch with friends spread around the globe. We are able to pass along notes about family members and prayer requests for those friends of ours who are having difficulties in our current situation.

    As an example: I have an aunt who is dying. I have told this to my facebook and internet friends, so there are more people praying for her at this moment, than would be possible, if the internet and the social systems were not available. I would still be writing notes.

    The world of the 21st century is a much more intimate place than it has ever been before.

  5. Bob Chapman says:

    As a nerd in high school, methinks the Archbishop doth protest too much.

    (I think being in the top 15% of my high school class and having a technical bent more affected what I was during that period than what I later figured out my sexual orientation to be.)

    Social interaction of any sort is helpful, even if superficial.

    You see, there were 1100-1200 students in my high school graduating class alone. There were well over 4000 students in this suburban St. Louis high school (at the time a 3-year high school).

    There were 28 of us in my Spanish IV class. There were 6 classes (sections) of Physics taught in a 7-period school day. By my senior year, it was easy for one nerd could find friends of like-minded nerds to have social intercourse.

    (As a sophomore, it was more difficult to find fellow nerds. The number of elective classes taken was fewer. The classes was mostly the same. I could see how my contentment level rose as I went through high school.)

    When I started my college studies in an Engineering school, in many ways my experiences more matched those who had graduated from private schools than others from public high schools. If nothing else, there were 17 fellow-graduates that I would run into regularly on campus. Add to that people with which I had gone to junior high but went to parochial high school, and I had more “homeboys” around me than most, even though attending a university campus 100 miles from home.

    When later, when I was teaching in small, rural high schools in South Dakota, I found that one of my unofficial duties was to encourage the few nerds to “keep the faith” because life would be better in college. I even had male students that enjoyed hunting and sports that, when in private, opened their heart to me, wondering why they were so different and almost be in tears. Only in one case was it a gay male who did this to me–and this was when I was married.

    What I would tell the Archbishop (and am probably doing through this web response) is that there were always problems and there always will be problems. The issues of dealing with personal differences, learning that everyone (including oneself) is not always trustworthy to friends, and how to appropriately gain support from friends always exist. The only change is that the specific mechanics of how a nerd from the 1970s handles them will be different from a nerd in 2009–and how many friends just may be there to help.

  6. Sandra Chapman says:

    Facebook may not be killing people or ruining the church,but it’a certainly stifled face-to-face communication among teens. I see it all the time with our students. Similarly, they will sit in the same room and text each other. Deterioration of social skills-certainly.