Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has warned of the dangers of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, saying that they are destroying the fabric of society. They lead young people to seek 'transient' friendships, have 'a dehumanising effect on community life' and make people treat friends as 'commodities'. He cites the case of a 15 year old girl who overdosed after being bullied on Bebo and says that 'A key factor in suicide among young people was the trauma caused when such loose relationships collapse'.
Nichols is just jumping on the Papal bandwagon as the Pope himself warned against the dangers of social networking. However, the pontiff then did an about-face, launching his own website with an application called The Pope meets you on Facebook. Benedict has said that he wants online content to respect human dignity and the 'goodness and intimacy of human sex'. So no poking on his Facebook, then.
It's not just religious leaders who are predicting the imminent collapse of society and the danger to young minds. Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology and director of the Royal Institute has also weighed in.
She claims that social networking sites are 'infantilising the mind', leading to an inability to empathize, a shaky sense of identity and a short attention span. Children's experiences are, she claims, 'devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance'. Use of Facebook etc could also be linked to the rise in ADHD and has an addictive quality comparable to compulsive gambling or over-eating. Children are losing empathy as they read novels less.
There are two points to deal with here. Firstly, a quick survey of sites on teenage suicide make no mention of social networking as a cause - in fact, poor social networking is a factor.
Secondly, this invective against new technology is not new. Vaughan Bell of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London has made an excellent PPP called Don't Touch That Dial! Technology Scares and the Media plotting the history of such doom-mongering (scroll down the page to Talks). He lists stories in the media about the imminent end of civilisation as we know it caused by new media, including one from the Mail - of course - about how Facebook can give you cancer. To give just a few examples, Socrates warned against the new-fangled use of allegory: 'Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn't, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change'.
In the 18th century, fears were focussed on the impact of the printing press and newspapers replacing sermons as the main source of news. Listening to a sermon was a group activity whereas newspaper reading was a solitary one. More worryingly, and perhaps more tellingly, readers' morality was at risk as they no longer had their news filtered through religious leaders.
In 1873, there was outcry against educating children, ruining their minds and bodies with the evils of reading.
But in the thirties, radio was the newest peril because it took children away from books. Listen with Mother can seriously affect your chances of reading Swallows and Amazons (echoes of Greenfield here). And then of course, the demon television threatened to distract children from good old radio and books, leading to 'juvenile misconduct and delinquency'. Yes, the spectre of juvenile delinquency rears it head to terrify parents whose children were all about to turn into James Dean and Marlon Brando.
Now we have the menace of computers. Email reduces IQ, video games damage the frontal lobes, Bebo leads to a suicide cult, Twitter kills morality. However, as Bell points out, none of the scare stories cites a single study on digital technology and cognitive function. In fact, studies have found that computer use enhances selective and spatial attention.
There have also been no correlational studies finding a consistent link between internet use and loneliness (a factor in suicide). One study found that internet use was associated with better communication, social involvement, self-esteem and well-being.
Recent research has shown that the vast majority of Twitterers are over 25.
In some cases, the ability to connect with people online can be a life-saver - for someone living in a remote community or one that condemns a particular life-style or identity. Being a gay teenager in a close-knit or religious community, being a pregnant teen with no idea of who to turn to, being depressed, finding face-to-face social contact difficult or simply needing to keep in touch with distant friends are all cases where online networking can help. People with Aspergers can find online conversations much easier, as someone with that condition pointed out to me.
Information is now much more freely available and although sources need to be checked, you can easily learn things that the previous generation had little or no access to. It is much harder to control who knows what, what is 'acceptable' knowledge and what isn't.
Scare stories about morals, public health and threats to society are really more about the fear of the new and the undermining of the status quo. The old guard sense their control slipping away, young people turn to technology the establishment doesn't understand and is therefore fearful of. The (self-appointed) guardians of morality and decent values are nostalgic for the technology of their youth, forgetting that at the time there was always someone somewhere raising the alarm that it was the latest barbarian at the gates of civilization. Scaring parents that their children are out of their control and having their minds eaten is an old and well-worn road. Until the establishment cotton on to the fact that they can use the latest media to spread their ideas, sell their products and influence the public and it becomes accepted - like the Pope's website. One day, Facebook will be the nostalgia du jour.
Whether is it Ancient Greek children corrupted by allegory or 21st century children poking each other on Facebook, society is always teetering on the brink while its elders look back to a Golden Age that never existed. And of course it makes for a good headline.
Update 4 August 2009: The controversial Bishop of Greater London, Jonathon Blake (of the Open Episcopal Church), has responded to Vincent Nichols' claims. He said that the Roman Catholic Church is a greater threat to relationships than Facebook: "Religious bigotry has fuelled the fragmentation of societies, the increase in prejudice and reactionary thinking".