Thursday, February 3, 2011

Author: Is Facebook ruining the true meaning of friendship for kids?

Not to sound like too much of a dinosaur, but I grew up in a time long before cell phones and the Internet. Atari was the most advanced "video game" console out there, and my brother and I would fight over the controls to play Space Invaders or Pac-Man.

As for friends, we had a neighborhood full of them. We'd gather in the yard of the neighbor across the street to play Red Rover after school, ride our bikes, climb trees, and hang out on the playground.

Phone conversations consisted of me stretching the cord of the rotary phone from my sister's room into mine and discussing the cute boy of the day with my schoolmates. God forbid if we'd have had cell phones. I can imagine my father's voice lamenting the number of minutes used, instead of just picking up another extension to tell me to get off the line (NOW!), as he was expecting a call.

It wasn't until I was in college that e-mail was even invented. I would go into a designated room (yes, one room) that housed car-sized computers and monitors with black backgrounds and orange blinking cursors, sign up for and wait for a free terminal, just to send my sister a two-line e-mail. My sister was the only person in the whole world I knew who knew how to email.

The Internet came to be a few years after that. And just last year, in advance of my 20th high school reunion, did a friend persuade me to sign up for a Facebook account. Now I would say, somewhat abashedly, that it's a pretty large part of my social life (the "social life" that has me staring into a computer or iPhone screen, that is).

Author Marilyn Randall recently published a book that addresses the Facebook phenomenon for children. Her book, "Making Friends Without Facebook," aims to teaches kids about friendships "outside of cyberspace." She notes in a press release promoting the book that when she was a kid, she didn’t have to send a friend request in order to become someone’s friend.

“When I see kids with their heads buried in laptops, or texting on cell phones, it disturbs me to think of how technology has changed the way our kids socialize,” said Randall, who has authored a series of children’s books on friendships including "For Faithful Friends," "The Best of Best Friends" and "Share From the Heart. “Our social networks are actually raising our kids to be extremely unsocial, and I think it’s changing society for the worse.”

According to Randall, the way kids make friends and learn how to value friendships, becomes the way they look at friendship as they grow. Her point is that kids who socialize solely in cyberspace will not value actual relationships, which will become "as disposable as e-mail."

“If we allow our kids to learn that all you need to do to make and keep friends is to click ‘accept friend request,’ then we’re devaluing the power of friendship,” she said. “Conversely, if all they have to do to end a friendship is click on ‘block user,’ then friendships become fleeting and easy to discard without a second thought. It also causes this ‘all about me’ mentality, prompting many children to grow up without consideration for others because they haven't learned to properly interact with others.”

Randall wants children to learn about friendship outside of cyberspace, more like the previous generations of kids who grew up without their own personal cell phones and ready access to social networks.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have cyberspace,” Randall said. “We didn’t meet in chat rooms. We met at the park or the playground. And we didn’t just talk -- we played and we interacted and we learned about the world around us through experiences together. I’m afraid the next generation of kids will miss out on that socialization because of their dependence on technology to manage their friendships.”

Randall’s tips for parents who want to help their kids better value their friendships include:

1) Balance Cyberspace with Real Life - If your kids use social networks, make sure they actually get together with their online friends once a week to do something. Take the time to make your home available, even if their friends simply come over to share a pizza. Help your kids balance cyberspace with the real world.

2) Limit Internet Use - A generation ago, parents would limit the amount of TV they would allow their kids to watch, and monitor what they watched. Place time limits on the time your kids spend online in the same way, and monitor which sites they use to chat with their friends.

3) Set An Example - Show your kids how you interact with your friends, and show them the value the long term friendships have in your life. If your kids see that you have long-term, close and fulfilling friendships with others, they’ll emulate those kinds of relationships in their lives.

“It’s ironic to me how the existence of all these different communication technologies has actually managed to make us feel more distant from each other,” Randall said. “We all have multiple e-mail addresses, online profiles and cell phones, but somehow we feel more far apart than ever before. Maybe what we need to do is teach our kids to put the computer down, and go outside and play with their friends.”

Good idea for a book. I await the scientific data that confirms how much we are messing up our young people by not encouraging them to go outside and play more often.

1 comment:

Redheaded Stepchild said...

I agree. I have seen adults on Facebook who grew up the same way as the author and myself who have lost the understanding of what a "friend" actually is. Facebook does not help in this situation when the sidebar is constantly showing: "People you may know" just because they happen to be a friend of your friend. Just because my Friend X went to grammar school with their Friend Z does mean that I need to become Z's friend as well.