Chaplain's thought for the week
Revd Tom considers the positives and negatives of online friendships
This week in Senior School Chapel we reflected upon the story from Genesis in which God creates human beings and says this: ‘It is not good that the human being should be alone.’ The story contains a very important truth: human beings need relationships with other human beings. One psychologist I was reading recently confirms this: ‘…the existence of the human being is predicated upon relationship – we are born into a powerful, usually intensely loving, relationship; we learn to define ourselves through relationship; and throughout our life our evaluation of ourselves is especially influenced by relationship.’
In Chapel I reflected upon the way in which friendships are fundamental to our wellbeing as human beings. I told our pupils that what matters is not so much how many friends they have, but the quality of their friendships. They might look at someone and think that they’re the most popular person in your year group, but in reality that person might be lonely. Why? Because they don’t have close friendships.
Although teenagers are hugely motived by popularly, genuine friendship is about more than being popular and having lots of mates. What humans really need are friends who make them feel supported. We might have hundreds of ‘friends’ on social media, but not have that most important thing of all in friendship: connection.
With this in mind, an important question to consider is whether young people can genuinely be friends with someone online, particularly with someone whom they’ve never met in real life. This is a particularly important issue because when most of us were at school there was no such thing as social media. I can dimly remember the emergence of ‘chatrooms’ while I was a teenager, but they were in their infancy. This means that lots of us who haven’t grown up with ‘online friends’ don’t really get it at best, and can be perhaps overly reactionary at worst.
It’s important to take a balanced approach. On the positive side, if friendship is all about connecting, then online friendships might be a godsend to some people who are shy and find it difficult to make friends. The virtual world might also be good for finding people with shared interests, in particular when there aren’t like-minded people around us in school. It might be that they are particularly helpful for those who are going through various difficult issues and find that they can connect with someone going through the same thing. I would also add that, as a priest, I have had the privilege of conducting a number of very joyous weddings for people whose first encounter was online.
There are, of course, also dangers and downsides. Online interaction always misses important dimensions of human contact: for example, eye-contact, body language and touch. Furthermore, people aren’t always honest online: it’s an easier forum in which to exaggerate our good qualities or neglect the bad, and it is much easier to pretend you’re someone you’re not online than it is face-to-face. Indeed, face-to-face interaction is important for us. Psychologists suggest that having genuine human contact is very beneficial, so we shouldn’t solely have friends online. Finally, we are all aware of the potential dangers of online friendships. People we meet online might not be who they say they are. I’ve made it absolutely clear to our pupils that they should never agree to meet up with someone they’ve met online.
None of this is easy, but it’s worth reflecting on deeply. After all, in our teenage years friendships seem more important to us than at any other time in our lives.