Modern Day Friends, Same Old Brain

I recently read where Facebook© has just reached a record 600 million profiles on their social networking platform. This certainly represents the largest “stage” of human interconnectedness ever created by mankind. The last 100 million seem to have been created in the last few months.

Social networking programs have certainly allowed people to stay in touch with one another or find one another years after high school or college. The chief advantage of social networking, of course, is the fact that they help us overcome time and distance as a constraint to keeping in touch with people. But as Robin Dunbar, a British social scientist who has done a fair amount of research on the phenomenon of “friending,” what Facebook© has not done is change the fundamental nature of who we are as human beings. After all, it takes a certain amount of social capital—attention, time, hard work and considerable emotional investment—to maintain a close personal friendship. So whether you have 100 “friends” on your Facebook© page or 1,000, the people you are most likely to correspond with are those you see offline in everyday life anyway.

As Dr. Dunbar writes, 40 percent of the precious little social time each of us has each week is devoted to the five people in our lives we are closest to, whether they be family or friends. Dunbar says this represents about 3 percent of our social world. His research suggests that the largest number of people one can truly have a meaningful relationship with online or offline is 150. In his words, people on our social networking sites beyond that number are simply “voyeurs.” When we share something on our profiles, we are simply “broadcasting” that information, which indeed allows large numbers of people to “keep up” with us, but it doesn’t really change or deepen the experience we have socially or emotionally.

For teenagers especially there seems to be great appeal to “broadcasting.” After all, if you just aced your algebra test in high school, it seems to be more satisfying to tell and get sympathy from 300 people that it is to tell and get sympathy from only two or three. That said, teenagers often have trouble realizing that what they post on their sites is there not only for their “friends” to see, but for the other 599,999,600 people who are on Facebook© who might care to look. Indeed, Teens seem to have this problem with technology in general. A case in point is the practice of “sexting,” or sending a nude or semi-nude picture of oneself or someone else via text message. In the New York Times dates Sunday, March 27, 2011, there is a front-page story about how one teenage girl sent a text to her boyfriend, only to have him pass it on to several other people after they broke up. Eventually, most everyone in her class had seen the picture, embarrassing the girl to the point where it made it impossible for her to remain at that school.

One area camps might consider is the area of positive digital education—teaching campers ages 12-15 what is appropriate and real about electronic forms of communication. A discussion of values—how to respect yourself and others—as well as knowing when to use a text, an e-mail or when to pick up the phone and call would also be helpful. Given that children today have grown up with chat rooms, texting, e-mail, Twitter© and other forms of electronic communication, they take them for granted. This does not mean, however, that they have learned the values that go with such communication. Like many things kids learn through social osmosis, sometimes the values part of the learning needs to be reinforced or highlighted by the caring adults in their world.

One Response to “Modern Day Friends, Same Old Brain”

  1. Yes! Need to train staff to positively affect how campers view and use technology…hmmm, a new topic for our staff training this year? (Heck, I think we are still training staff that their posts on social media are visible to everyone!)

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