Social networking isn't a waste? Duh

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:09 a.m. CST, Thursday, January 8, 2009

COLUMBIA – In November, the MacArthur Foundation published a summary of the findings from the Digital Youth Project, a three-year project to explore “how kids use digital media in their everyday lives.” The study, a joint project between the University of Southern California and the University of California-Berkeley, found that technology is an integral part in the lives of today’s youths.


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That may have already been common knowledge among adults — it’s hard to debate the prevalence of technology in today’s society. What may be new to some people is one of the conclusions the researchers came to: Social networks aren’t a waste of time.

I think anyone in that coveted 18–24 demographic could have told you that.

“I have made friends with people at school because we have met at a party or I find out they live in my dorm so (I'll) request to be their friend,” said Jessica Fitzgibbon, a freshman at Grand Valley State University. “I don’t think I would have met as many new people at school if it weren’t for social networks like Facebook.”

In the spirit of this story I both found and interviewed Fitzgibbon via Facebook. In fact, I found all my sources for this piece online, either through Facebook or Google.

But many adults continue to see MySpace and Facebook as a waste of time at best and a threat to the fabric of society at worst. Won't using online networks  destroy our ability to connect?

“My research has found the exact opposite,” said Christine Greenhow, a postdoctoral associate of learning technologies at the University of Minnesota. “Kids feel more connected. They’re seeing their friends in a new way.”

Social networks make "meeting people easier, and sometimes getting to know people a little less awkward,” said Kaity McGrew, a freshman at Hope College.

“OK,” skeptics might say, “kids use social networks to make new friends. But that means they don’t know how to interact in the real world.”

Not true.

“Kids who are most active online are the kids who are doing the most communication in other mediums,” said Aaron Smith, a research specialist for the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

For most, social networking isn’t the primary mode of interaction.

“I like to make friends by meeting them in person and looking at them,” said Camille DeCoursey, a sophomore at Loyola University, New Orleans. “It is difficult to learn about a person when you cannot see or hear them.”

She doesn’t even "friend" people she hasn’t met in person.

“It really bothers me when I get friend requests from people I do not even know, and the only reason they requested me was because of mutual friends,” DeCoursey said.

Kids use social networking as an extension of or supplement to their friendships, not a replacement.

“Before going to college I joined a Facebook group of incoming freshman and I saw people living in my dorm,” Fitzgibbon said. “So I friend requested them to get to know them before the first day of class and to get a head start on new friendships, as well as creep to see who they really are and if I would want to be friends with them.”

For the record, “creeping” is the word for checking another person’s profile just to see what’s there. It’s also known as “Facebook stalking” when it’s done on that site.

We all do it and it’s not weird. My friends and I will usually tell each other when we stalk each other the next time we meet in person.

And even when you prefer to keep interaction primarily face-to-face, like DeCoursey, it’s not easy.

This semester, the only time my three roommates and I would be in our apartment at the same time was Monday. So every Monday night we made it a point to watch "Monday Night Football" together.

So what else is there to worry about? Oh yeah, security.

However, the privacy issue doesn’t seem to be as bad as adults want to think.

Smith’s research found that “two-thirds of teens with an online profile say they restrict access to it in some way, while just 50 percent of online adults with profiles restrict access.”

“You hear adults worrying about their kids being found and they’re not necessarily practicing what they preach,” Smith said. “Kids have grown up with this and know how to navigate online.”

DeCoursey and Fitzgibbon are both in sororities, which limit what members are able to post to their profiles. Young people are aware that people are looking at them.

“I don’t want people to get a bad impression of me and I have family on Facebook that look at my profile, so I don’t want anything on there to make them disappointed in me,” Fitzgibbon said. “Also, if you’re applying for a job, they may look to see if you have a Facebook and see if you are a responsible person and care about your image.”

McGrew plays volleyball for her school, which makes her aware of what she posts online, but not just because of team policy.

“It's something that isn't taken lightly by some people, so I think we all have to be careful to a certain extent,” McGrew said. “And really, I don't want to have embarrassing pictures or things on my Facebook.”

So if I know it, and my friends know it, and researchers know it, why doesn’t everyone know it?

“The disconnect is from their generation to our generation,” said Bernhard Warner, a technology journalist based in Rome. In this case, “our generation” refers to the older generation.

“The older generation cannot understand how youth of today can operate so instinctively with technology.”

Warner is also head of editorial content for Radar DDB, a social media agency in the United Kingdom, and teaches a journalism course at John Cabot University in Rome. He said that it is hard for members of the older generation, particularly educators, to understand how young people have adapted to technology.

“It’s changed how the younger generation not only receives information, but how they communicate,” Warner said. “They want to participate. They don’t want to passively take in information.”

Greg Wasserman is a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism and a reporter for the Missourian.

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