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Authentic Relationships in an E-Culture

many friend requests on Facebook and MySpace. Almost all of the teens were into social networking. In fact, their list of contact info was unbelievable: e-mail, cell phone, Facebook, IM screen name. Although I was a relative newcomer to the social networking scene (Facebook became widespread on college campuses the year after I graduated), I shouldn’t have been surprised that so many teens were online.

According to a poll from Pew Internet, 55 percent of online teens ages 12 to 17 use a social networking site, particularly older teen girls. And 91 percent of these social networking teens say they do so to keep in touch with peers they see frequently, while almost three-fourths of online teens use social networking sites to make plans with friends. I understand this concept a little, having been a teen when instant messaging became popular. I would come home from hanging out with friends and then spend another hour on the computer IM-ing them.

In the weeks following the missions trip, when I had a bunch of friend requests on Facebook, I began to think about the role of social networking sites. I think the idea of Facebook and MySpace is genius, but I began to wonder, Does it replace face-to-face communication in the lives of today’s teens? My concern wasn’t with the sites themselves (that’s another issue for another column), but with the possibility that our teens will start to think of friendships in terms of only online interactions. There’s a danger in thinking about friendships from behind a computer screen. The anonymity of such conversations and the ability to be selective and even "creative" in what you display to the world in an online profile is dangerous if that’s the sole basis of a friendship.

"While the Internet has brought people closer together—people now work together for years without meeting in person—it has simultaneously driven people apart," wrote syndicated columnist and author Ben Shapiro. "Anonymity has degraded relationships. People consider their MySpace and Facebook friends actual ’friends’ without ever speaking to them."

Fortunately, during the two-week Peru trip, I got to know the girls on my team fairly well. Each night I visited two rooms of girls and "tucked them in." We talked about the day, and they were able to process what they were feeling and what God was teaching them. These late-night conversations covered some heavy topics, which created a problem once we returned home: How would I maintain my role as friend/mentor to these girls who had really opened up to me? I couldn’t, I discovered—at least not through a social networking site.

Social networking sites are great for maintaining established friendships, but I’m not convinced they can replace the sincerity and intimacy of the real thing. While I can send the girls from the trip an encouraging message online, I can’t be as involved in their lives as I was during those two weeks of bonding in person.

Maybe the best use of these sites is to enhance new friendships and preserve old ones. Through Facebook, I recently connected with a high school friend living in Dallas whom I hadn’t seen in over seven years. I read her profile and learned what she’d been up to since we graduated. After a few random messages and wall posts online, we made plans to meet up when we were both in town over Christmas. This ended up becoming a reunion with four of my high school friends, none of whom are believers. And that, I think, is the best use of such a site: as a means of reconnecting in person.

So Facebook has become a tool to help me stay connected with the girls from the missions trip, but it can’t, I realized, take the place of those precious moments spent together. For teens who use social networking sites to contact local friends about which movie to see on Friday night, I say carry on! But parents should help their children realize that Facebook works best when it enhances friendships that have been forged the low-tech way with good, old-fashioned face-to-face communication.

Published January 2007