Advisor: Don't let social networking ruin your social skills

The head of England's Roman Catholic Church is worried that social networking is costing people &mdash especially teenagers &mdash their social skills. Is he right?

In an article published yesterday in the UK's Telegraph, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the man in charge at the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, blamed the Internet for causing things like bad community relations, shoddy friendships, and child suicides. "Too much exclusive use of electronic information dehumanizes what is a very, very important part of community life and living together," he said. And then: "Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships.They throw themselves into a friendship or network of friendships, then it collapses and they're desolate." He was speaking in response to a recent incident in which 15-year old girl killed herself after a bout of bullying on Bebo.

I get where he's coming from, kinda. There is something deeply impersonal about the way information is relayed on social networks. In the past year, I've found out about half a dozen engagements, four weddings, two divorces, two deaths, and scores of newborn babies via Facebook updates. When I want to know what my friends are up to, I check their Twitter feed. Twitter is also where most intelligent daytime discussions take place &mdash why bother meeting someone for coffee to discuss current affairs when you can do the same with two hundred people at once on Tweetdeck? I don't remember any phone numbers anymore, let alone addresses or birthdays &mdash Facebook has all those answers, too. Maybe the Internet really is making me socially retarded. It must be even worse for kids who are growing up now and have never known an analog era.

I understand the Archbishop's concern, although I do think he's overreacting, especially with the transient relationships stuff. Relationships are transient everywhere, not just online &mdash in fact, hating and un-friending can be just as hurtful, if not more so, when they take place in the real world.

By the way, it appears &mdash although I haven't been able to verify whether this is his actual account &mdash that the Archbishop himself is on Facebook. So is the Roman Catholic Church. So if you want to ask him what he meant by "transient relationships," you could just send him a direct message. Or we can discuss it here in our very social online forum. Even better, grab a colleague or two, invite them out for a drink, and have a face-to-face conversation about it.

Advisor is a new weekly column about how to juggle technology, relationships, and common sense. Got a story to tell? Email it to mango [at] tokyomango [dot] com.

About Lisa Katayama

I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.
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24 Responses to Advisor: Don't let social networking ruin your social skills

  1. Siamang says:

    Shorter Archbishop:

    Facebook is competing with our business model. Join the Church, reckless youth, not Twitter.

    Why is this guy suddenly an expert in social communications? Is it just because of his job washing babies and fighting against the right of gay couples to adopt children?

    “Archbishop Nichols also raised concerns about developments in British society including the rise of individualism, which he said was typified by the attitude of footballers in breaking their contracts to move to other clubs for a bigger salary”

    Oh dear. Now THAT is a terrible problem, very worthy of hand-wringing from Almighty God’s ambassador on this, the most important speck of dust in all Creation.

    Because one thing God really cares about is some footballer breaks his contract with Stuppington FC to join West Shittington United. Because without team rivalries, how will we ever teach little Johnny and Janey how to hate the people who live just over in the next county over nothing more than brand affiliation.

    In-group amity, out-group enmity. It’s what religion thrives on.

  2. Angstrom says:

    I see more of my friends due to socialmedia. When they post about gigs and parties I can go along and see them. In the past that would be a trail of missed notes and forgotten phone messages.

    It helps my conversation too.Prior to social media conversations with aquaintances wer marred by thinking “are they still married to that jerk, or did they split up ages ago” and “is she doing that class, or was it her sister”.
    The power of social media mean people are pleased when I appear to remember their birthday, or that they have just bought a boat/dog/flamethrower. Regardless of what technology was used to remind me of these facts, it’s better that I can chat confidently about their dog than talking mistakenly about their obvious pregnancy.

    But then, I am a sociopathic satanist, so my views may be a little wide of the RC consensus.

  3. Marcel says:

    Yes let’s talk about kids as if they are empty vessels ment to be filled with our all important knowledge before they are allowed to be taken seriously.

    ‘Social skills’. By who’s standard are they being measured then? Those of the Roman Catholic Church?
    We have learned a fair share about the way some of its patriarchs prefer to express their ‘social skills’ towards children, haven’t we now?!

    I therefore advise the Head of the Roman Catholic Church in England to apply himself educating his own collegues to display appropriate ‘social’ behavior towards people, and minors in particular.

  4. Siamang says:

    I really wonder why these people are asked to pen their opinions on these subjects. Are they really qualified at all?

    Why not a psychologist who studies social behavior? Why not a sociologist or an anthropologist?

    They wouldn’t ask the local Tarot reader, or a dowser or a pet psychic how they felt about online social media.

    Wait, this is the UK. Maybe they would.

    I don’t see this archbishop as being a better expert on human communication than any random person able to write a piece. What makes his opinion more important than the local dog-walker or dairy farmer or fisherman? They have personal insights too. I feel like the media hand the bullhorn to those who already have a microphone, a pulpit and an army of town criers.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Until there are verified stories about kids locked up in their parents basement who refuse to come out because they might miss a twit I call bullshit.

    There is a regenerative circle in social network posturing. Person A updates their status with a fun activity, person B feels like their status updates about sandwiches are comparatively lame, so they do something cool just to post an update about it. This bounced back and forth until people are so busy having fun that they don’t update their status any more.*

    I have a very good friend who went from a secluded lonely person to a somewhat outgoing, reasonably social person from just the pressure of posting something interesting to Facebook and Twitter.

    * Emo kids and drama queens excluded. “OMG I just did the best laundry ever!”

  6. phisrow says:

    Does Vincent know that there are lots of cute boys on the internet?

  7. PK says:

    Basic salesman technique, in the name of god:

    “You have a problem. You know that something you always do has something wrong about it. Yes, that is a big problem. And that problem is something pretty trendy, where all demons are following. Do you know that there are people doing the same trendy thing that you do, and led themselves to death (and go to hell)? You don’t want to follow the way of demons. You should become part of us. Join our religion.”

    This applies to every single topic, from Michael Jackson to Marilyn Manson, from disco to video games, that the Catholic church had attempted to attack in order to make paranoid moms worried about their antsy kids:

    “Oh no, all my children and their (weird) friends are this strange site called Facebook! I don’t know how to use it! He seems addicted! There must be something wrong about these sites (taking his attention away from… me)!”

    Or this also applies to teenagers hitting a hardship and beginning to self-doubt:

    “Why am I such a failure? I am supposed to be the best student in the school! Why do I have no friends? I tried to add 1000 people on Facebook and Myspace! Why do I still feel so lonely? These sites are evil! They lead me to all these problems!”

    I despise evangelists, politicians or salesmen that feed on people’s innate fear and paranoia. Conservatism does not need to be based on that.

  8. HeatherB says:

    Like any form of communication, it will have it’s pros and cons. If it keeps someone from actually going out there and doing things with friends, or when they are out they can’t be away from updates, then there is a problem. But the issue then is the person, not the form of communication.
    And once again, why aren’t the parents being questioned then? Basic social skills should be taught by parents. Like sending thank you cards for gifts, making phone calls on birthdays, sending stuff for loved ones special occasions. It’s not like Junior is going to be updating his FB page at 2 years old. If you learn the basics when you’re little that should carry over into all forms of social networking. Whether it’s online or face time.

  9. Angstrom says:

    yes, these are exactly the sort of people who should be in church. Kneeling.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps His Grace is nostalgic for those Halcyon days when all it took to ensure a child’s social development was kept on the right path was a priest with an avuncular hand on the genitals.

  11. lolbrandon says:

    I found out one of my best friends was getting married after she updated the relationship status to “engaged.” I’ll admit, I was a little hurt for finding out that way, but as it turns out, she didn’t tell her sister, either. And that’s because that’s just the way she is about that sort of thing. While I would call or meet as many people as I could in-person, she’d rather not make a deal out of it and just click the update button.

    Wired has a great article, however, on never listing you relationship status online, and I think it’s a must read. It ties in with the Archbishop’s quotes nicely. Although I think he’s making a mountain out of a mole hill, Wired drives home a good point:

    “Matters of the heart are too fraught to boil down to the choices offered in a pulldown menu. Sharing such news is best done in person.”

    Besides, it never hurts to have a little face-to-face with old friends, as long as we avoid direct sunlight.

  12. omnifrog says:

    Things change.

    We’re getting old.

    The younger generation has never known anything different and will thrive.

    Things haven’t gotten better or worse. Just different.

  13. ianm says:

    Twitter is also where most intelligent daytime discussions take place…

    A more contradictory sentence I have not read in a very long time. Twitter is a shallow pool of vanity, ‘intelligence’ cannot possibly be conveyed 140 characters at a time. Anyone with a thought in their head more complex than ‘food is good’ ought to realize this and the inherently inhibiting function twitter plays on discourse or reasoning.

    We have large collections of correspondences between many thousands of people from days of old where volumes of insightful comment and gentlemanly wit and refinement was displayed. I am no master letter writer, nor I am a twitter user, but any erudition or modicum of intelligence can only be displayed in the former medium and only thwarted in the latter. Quips and such are the province of fools (and twitter), thinking requires engagement, focus, and depth – sometimes for thousands of pages. Twitter will rightly join the ash heap of history along with all of its contents as nothing of value can possibly be conveyed on its frail infrastructure.

    That said, I still enjoy my facebook and livejournal – but happily neglected myspace and twitter for their glaring offenses against intellect.

  14. peterbruells says:

    I think this is the 10th blog or so which reported the news and I’m afraid to say, that nearly most participants didn’t catch the most important word but just reacted to “church” , “twitter” and “facebook” like conditioned by Pawlow himself.

    “Too much *exclusive* use” . Too all you “I meet my friend a lot more often than before” and “I keep in touch with my family via facebook, when I’m not with them”: You are not the people he’s concerned about. He’s concerned about those whose only social networks are electronic networks, whose only emotional interactions happens on the net.

  15. RedShirt77 says:

    I hate all this talk.

    Social networking, video games, internet porn, and cell phones will destroy our way of life…. AAhhhhhhhh.

    When I worked at a golf course, I saw guys play two rounds on a Sunday (8hours) and then dinner with their friends, play another round on Saturday and take a morning off during the week to get in another round.

    No one ever writes columns about golf destroying families, at least not anywhere near as often.

    Social networking and video games and the internet aren’t worse than golf, television, and betamax porn. In fact they are better. All these silly columns and papal decries are about people and their concerns and fears about new things.

    There will always be socially awkward people and people that ignore their families. Also hand written birth announcements are a waste of time.

    Ok, I’m done.

  16. Anonymous says:

    @Caldrax, if you care to look through Act 2, Scene 2 of Nevermind, you’ll find that Kurt was being ironic, as the character quoted is neither brief nor witty.

  17. fergus1948 says:

    How refreshing to hear a member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy expressing concern for young people.

    We already know that many of their parish priests have always had a ‘special interest’ in children which has been whitewashed by their seniors.

    I’m sure that the Catholic church believes that being reared on ritual, guilt, shame and inappropriate touching is much less dangerous than signing on to Bebo.

  18. pduggie says:

    I’m not Roman Catholic, but those of you arguing that an Archbishop has no more experience with social structures than a dog washer are fooling yourselves.

    Pastors and priests are still the go-to guys for vast ammounts of westerners who feel they need social help of all sorts. Many of them get seminary training in social interaction, psychology, counseling, etc.

    Pastors who wear clerical garb have uncountable tales of people voluntarily unburdening themselves of their life stories on airplanes, buses, etc. Pastors and priests are heads of large social meeting places, and archbishops have demonstrated some ability in that area to be promoted in the ranks of the church. (ecclesia = assembly)

    I dare say the man has probably counseled scores of suicidal persons in his life of experience. My father-in-law was a police chaplain, and was himself helpful in talking people down off ledges, etc. More than the dairy farmer (though he probably has a lot of good sense too)

    Would the bebo suicide girl have been bullied like she was if she were only in f2f situations?

  19. caldrax says:

    Hmm that’s the first time I’ve ever had my comments moderated here… interesting.

  20. historyman68 says:

    The comics page in your newpaper is chock full of stories of men abandoning their families to play golf.

  21. Siamang says:


    I’m not arguing that the Archbishop hasn’t more experience with these issues, but that I don’t think his opinion on human communication with digital technology is necessarily any better or worse than the neighborhood dog-walker.

    For all we know, the Archbishop has an assistant print his email out for him on paper. What makes him an expert? Is it because God supposedly talks to him?

    Further, in the areas of human communication as you cite, do we know that the archbishop actually gives good advice? Say when it comes to birth control, homosexuality, child-rearing, right-to-die issues…. we can go on and on here… This is a man who has fought to keep gays from being able to adopt children. Not exactly a modern thinker.

  22. Rob Beschizza says:

    Caldrax, I probably deleted it amid this morning’s epic spam invasion — you wouldn’t have been the only victim.

    Repost it. If it disappears again, you’ll know for sure!

  23. RedShirt77 says:


    In your cartoon example they are using golf as a euphemism for gay sex. Gay sex does tend to have a bad effect on marriages.

    Wood burning and leather working also have a bad effect on ones social skills, not to mention stamp collecting.

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