The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England is warning that Facebook, texting and e-mails are destroying relationships and may even lead teens to commit suicide.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the Westminster diocese and spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, voiced his concerns about e-mail and social networks in an interview with England’s The Sunday Telegraph.
Nichols said Web 2.0 technology is weakening relationships, harming communities and forcing the decline of social skills. The archbishop made the comments in the wake of the widely publicized death of a 15-year-old U.K. girl who committed suicide after being bullied online.
“I think there’s a worry that an excessive use or an almost exclusive use of text and e-mails means that, as a society, we’re losing some of the ability to build interpersonal communication that’s necessary for living together and building a community,” he was quoted as saying in the Telegraph story.
“Too much exclusive use of electronic information dehumanizes what is a very, very important part of community life and living together.”
Nichols also said online social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace, are eroding children’s and teenagers’ real-life social networks.
“Facebook and MySpace might contribute towards communities, but I’m wary about it. It’s not rounded communication so it won’t build a rounded community,” he added in the interview.
“If we mean by community a genuine growing together and a mutual sharing in an interest that is of some significance then it needs more than Facebook.”
These weakened relationships, the archbishop said, can lead to suicide.
“Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships,” Nichols said.
“It’s an all or nothing syndrome that you have to have in an attempt to shore up an identity; a collection of friends about whom you can talk and even boast. But friendship is not a commodity, friendship is something that is hard work and enduring when it’s right.”
In the U.S., Facebook, which just logged its 250 millionth user, has become the most popular social networking site – for young and old.
Nielsen Online reported last month that 87.25 million U.S. users visited Facebook from home and work during June, and each of those people spent an average of 4 hours, 39 minutes and 33 seconds on the site during the month.
While one study this spring showed that Facebook users get lower grades in college, and another showed that Facebook use is hurting work productivity, the archbishop’s statements has caused an online buzz about how social networking might affect people on a personal level.
Dan Olds, an analyst at The Gabriel Consulting Group, said it’s unfortunate that Nichols only focused on the cases of online bullying and of people amassing large groups of online “friends.” The archbishop is missing the benefits that can come with social networking, he said.
“He doesn’t discuss how social networking has given people of all ages the opportunity to interact where they might not have interacted at all,” Olds noted.
“True, the interaction is virtual, but, for many people, this is an important first step towards helping them communicate better with real live people. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that virtual communication and ‘live’ communication aren’t mutually exclusive. The vast majority of people have rich relationships in both the virtual and real worlds.”
Marines solidify ban on Facebook
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are also generating a lot of controversy.
The U.S. Marine Corps announced this week that these sites are banned from military networks.
The reasons, in this case, have nothing to do with the supposed potential of these sites to erode relationships – and everything to do with security.
“These Internet sites in general are a proven haven for malicious actors and content and are particularly high risk due to information exposure, user generated content and targeting by adversaries,” administrative directive, issued Monday, noted.
“The very nature of [social networking sites] creates a larger attack and exploitation window, exposes unnecessary information to adversaries and provides an easy conduit for information leakage …”
The new direction doesn’t change much.
Marines have not been allowed to access sites like Facebook, MySpace or Twitter from military networks. The Marines have simply put an official stamp on the ban, while also laying out the steps to take for any Marine who wants to access a site as part of his or her job.
The ban, however, is only for people using Marines’ equipment and networks while they are working. Marines may still Twitter or post to Facebook on their own time and on their own computers.
The military isn’t against using sites like Facebook and Twitter, said 1st Lt. Craig Thomas, a Pentagon-based spokesman for the Marine Corps.
The U.S. Central Command has a Facebook page, a channel on YouTube and a Twitter account to get out information regarding operations news. The Army is using MySpace to recruit new soldiers and the U.S. Forces Afghanistan page on Facebook has more than 24,000 fans.
“The Marine Corps has got to find a balance between security and letting Marines capitalize on the technology,” Thomas said in an interview with Computerworld.
“We don’t want information leaks and we want to keep Marines focused on the mission at work and we wanted to save bandwidth. We’re trying to find the fine line.”
Thomas noted that 30 years ago, soldiers were warned about revealing too much information in letters home. Then 10 years ago, they were warned about how they used e-mail. Today, the focus is on social networks.
“You can’t have someone posting, ‘Hey, we’re leaving on this date and at this time,'” he added.
“Believe me, the enemy is checking out what you guys are reporting and what service men and women are saying online. The Marine Corps instills operational security. They need to be cognizant of what they’re saying, whether verbally or what they’re saying on social networking sites.”
Ken van Wyk, principal consultant at KRvW Associates, said the Marines have several avenues of concern with social network use and they’re probably right on track with most of them.
“If they’re concerned about the platform — whether Facebook itself is secure — then their concerns should go far beyond just Facebook,” van Wyk said. “Any site that permits active content into the user’s browser runs the same risk. Facebook is just one of many.”
But for the military to be concerned about soldiers posting mission critical information on Facebook or MySpace, then they’re not thinking broadly enough, van Wyk said.
“If they’re concerned about the content, like soldiers posting, ‘Wow, having breakfast just outside of Fallujah today,’ then Facebook is purely just a scapegoat,” he added.
“Information can be shared in many different ways. SMS texts, for example. E-mails to friends. Facebook and its ilk make that particularly easy, as well as tough for the Marines to control or even monitor, but someone who wants to share information is going to find a way.”