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Networking Sites: Generation N

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Cautious: Sixteen-year-old
Aisling Weldon makes sure
to keep her Bebo profile
set to private

Cautious: Sixteen-year-old Aisling Weldon makes sure to keep her Bebo profile set to private

Cautious: Sixteen-year-old Aisling Weldon makes sure to keep her Bebo profile set to private

Last week, 17-year-old Adrian Ruane signed off on his Bebo page with a message saying 'goodbye and good luck,' before killing himself. A link between teen suicide and social networking sites has been suggested all too often, but are these sites somehow to blame for young deaths, or are the final farewells posted by teenagers simply an example of how strong a role social networking sites play in their day to day communications?

For the Bebo Generation, social networking sites such as Bebo and MySpace are an everyday part of life. While newspaper headlines warn of the imminent death of social networking sites, for teenagers, their popularity is growing.

The allure of these sites might be difficult for anyone over the age of 30 to comprehend, but for a generation that has never known a world without mobile technology, it's just another way of staying in touch.

Dr Arthur Cassidy is a social psychologist who specialises in youth suicide.

"I can't rule it out that social networks play no part at all," he says of the suggested link between social networking and youth suicide. "I get angry when people say it has no relevance -- we have to ask, what is relevant to the intention to die?"

Dr Cassidy says social networking sites can have an isolating effect.

"We're creating our own alienation, moving further away from the nuclear family and the psychological stability that offers.

"We've really done an injustice in allowing people so much exposure to the point where it becomes alienating and dehumanising. We need to limit exposure, teach children how to enjoy the internet and have computers in the same room as the parents.

"I would advocate also getting back to traditional Irish values, and getting back to the basics of reality. Have parties at home where young people can enjoy their creativity, or why not say, 'let's go and talk to people in Africa about their culture'.

"We should be cautious about how we are socialising people. We need family ideals -- eat meals together, talk openly about problems and the family background and history -- but we need to create these traditional values with a sense of independence as well, because you can't be overly strict."

One factor that makes social networking sites so popular amongst young people is the freedom to discuss openly things they might not feel comfortable talking about on a face to face level.

"We have to be careful about a lack of belongingness," says Dr Cassidy.

"If young people don't feel they belong, they will try to find solace on networking sites because they allow them scope to discuss anything. Because of the anonymity, they think, I can share my feelings, I might never meet this person and they won't ostracise me because they feel the same pain. The more anonymous we are, the more we can discuss."

Sarah Gavin, Global Communications Director of Bebo, says that for its users, Bebo is a method of self-expression.

"We noticed our users were spending lots of time on their profiles and uploading content that says something meaningful about them. We all remember what it's like to be a teenager. We define ourselves by the clothes we wear or the brands we choose to buy, it's the same across the board."

Bebo's core audience is made up of 16- to 24-year-olds, although its audience in Ireland is older than average.

"It's part of their lifestyle, it's an extension of what they do every day. They approach the internet in a completely different way than people in their 30s do."

So just what is the average teenager's experience of Bebo? Sixteen-year-old Aisling Weldon from St Jospeh's School in Lucan, Dublin, first got into social networking when she heard about Bebo in school.

"I think it's good because you can stay in touch with your friends if you have no phone credit. I go on it for an hour at night when I get a chance or when I've to do homework I might log on very quickly."

She says she would have no problem going without Bebo.

"I wouldn't die if I didn't have it, I'd be grand. I'm not addicted to it, I'd just use my phone. I probably wouldn't go to as many gigs because I wouldn't hear about them and I wouldn't be able to keep in contact with people, but that's all."

As for netiquette, she says caution is required.

"I've seen people who wouldn't be afraid to say anything. I think that can be more a bad thing than a good thing. You need to be careful if you say something bad because it can affect your relationship with a person. You can report abuse so you can feel secure." And she keeps her profile set to private, only adding a friend if she knows them. "I do think some people are using these sites for the wrong reasons."

In Ballyhaunis Community School, Co Mayo, students are taught to show caution on social networking sites.

Principal Pat McHugh says, for modern teenagers social networking sites are just another aspect of daily life.

"As one parent said, these sites are the pen-pal situation of the 21st century. For 98pc of the pages, they are totally harmless, they are teenagers contacting other teenagers. The danger I see is young people tend to be very trusting and I would be afraid they would be lured into something unsavoury by unscrupulous people."

As principal, has he noticed any difference in the behaviour of his pupils since the arrival of Bebo? "I don't think there's any difference. Bullying was happening 25 years ago when I started teaching. I don't think these sites are inherently bad, but they can be abused. A lot of people get worked up about this and mobile phones but today's teenagers have grown up with phones.

"We allow our students to have phones as long as they are powered off during the day, because we see it as a health and safety issue. Teenagers in a rural area might be dropped at a crossroads five miles from a town and need to get a lift."

As for the dangers that may present themselves, McHugh says most students would have secure sites. "They have grown up with technology and they wise up fairly quickly. In school they're generally protected because there is a firewall, but many homes would not have that nanny system in place and that's where parental involvement comes in."

While Bebo is the most popular site for teenagers, internet consultant Damien Mulley says there are certain features of social networking that appeal to everyone, not just adolescents.

"They enhance existing relationships with friends; it's an easier way of keeping in touch."

When it comes to teenagers, Mulley says there is a competitive edge to the performance aspect of their profiles.

"With teenagers there is definitely the showing off thing. You're on public display, it's a sort of stage where you can show off. They're very comfortable with these sites.

"They see it as another aspect of their personality, like they way they might decorate their pencil case or iPod -- their profile defines them."

Despite what he sees as some negative aspects of social networking sites, Mulley is generally in favour of them.

"I'm on the pro-side, apart from that text speak they all use, and the bad thing is the bullying is really nasty, they try to outdo each other with their nasty comments. It's unbelievable. We need better reporting tools on the websites so that if someone leaves an abusive comment, there should be a facility where anyone can report that. There's definitely a danger for things to turn into a Lord of the Flies situation. We don't want a nanny state, but it's like a playground -- children should be within earshot of adults. We don't have that with Bebo. With the current culture of outdoing each other, there needs to be adults there. Parents have a responsibility."

Bebo's Sarah Gavin says, when it comes to internet safety, parents need to talk to their children about it.

"We're working really hard with the experts and the key message from them seems to be for parents to have a dialogue with their children, and that is in regard to the internet in general. If your teenager was going out at night, you'd ask them where they were going and what they were doing. It should be the same thing with the internet."

'You will never completely control it. You have to rely on the integrity of your children'

Like most parents, Nick Bitove was introduced to social networking through his children.

"I've got three children and the eldest is in college in the states, so the whole thing started with MSN messaging" says Nick.

"That was the first taste I had, then when Jake was in transition year, I became aware of Blastspace through the school."

Seventeen-year-old Jake is the lead singer with a band called NightBox (formerly Hotstop) and says he first started using Bebo and MySpace two years ago.

"At first it was for my personal page, but now I hardly even check the personal one.

"I only use it now as a band page. With the band it's different, because if people want to be our friend, we'll accept anyone who is interested in us.

"I had my personal profile set to private though and I've always felt safe using it. I just think, always have your personal profile set to private, because having it public means anyone can just google you."

Nick says he has some concerns about these sites when it comes to privacy.

"I think there are always reservations where information is public and there are dangers involved.

"It comes down to the relationship my wife and I have with our children. Everyone is entitled to their privacy and, looking back at when I was this age, back then the phone was the thing for us and there were times when you wouldn't want anyone to be around when you were on the phone. It's the same with these sites."

Nick says he tries to combat some of these concerns by having the computer in a main area of their home.

"You're never going to be able to control it completely. You have to rely on the integrity of your own children."

On a positive note, Jake says his band has built up their fanbase almost entirely through social networking.

Does Nick see it as a good way for his son to develop promotional and networking skills?

"Not necessarily. I think there are other ways they could develop those skills, but I think it's a fact of life now. Before texting and email, we had to have conversations and I've always found that verbal dialogue is better than text, but we're dealing with inevitability now; these sites are evolving."

NightBox play the Coca Cola Blastbeat National Finals (all ages) at Tripod, Dublin, on Saturday.



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