Archbishop: Facebook can lead to teen suicide

Head of Catholic Church in U.K. says texting, e-mail, social networks destroy friendships

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England is warning that Facebook, texting and e-mails are destroying relationships and may even lead teens to commit suicide.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the Westminster diocese and spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, voiced his concerns about e-mail and social networks in an interview with England's The Sunday Telegraph.

Nichols said Web 2.0 technology is weakening relationships, harming communities and forcing the decline of social skills. The archbishop made the comments in the wake of the widely publicized death of a 15-year-old U.K. girl who committed suicide after being bullied online.

"I think there's a worry that an excessive use or an almost exclusive use of text and e-mails means that, as a society, we're losing some of the ability to build interpersonal communication that's necessary for living together and building a community," he was quoted as saying in the Telegraph story. "Too much exclusive use of electronic information dehumanizes what is a very, very important part of community life and living together."

Nichols also said online social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace, are eroding children's and teenagers' real-life social networks.

"Facebook and MySpace might contribute towards communities, but I'm wary about it. It's not rounded communication so it won't build a rounded community," he added in the interview. "If we mean by community a genuine growing together and a mutual sharing in an interest that is of some significance then it needs more than Facebook."

These weakened relationships, the archbishop said, can lead to suicide.

"Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships," Nichols said. "It's an all or nothing syndrome that you have to have in an attempt to shore up an identity; a collection of friends about whom you can talk and even boast. But friendship is not a commodity, friendship is something that is hard work and enduring when it's right."

In the U.S., Facebook, which just logged its 250 millionth user, has become the most popular social networking site - for young and old. Nielsen Online reported last month that 87.25 million U.S. users visited Facebook from home and work during June, and each of those people spent an average of 4 hours, 39 minutes and 33 seconds on the site during the month.

While one study this spring showed that Facebook users get lower grades in college, and another showed that Facebook use is hurting work productivity, the archbishop's statements has caused an online buzz about how social networking might affect people on a personal level.

Dan Olds, an analyst at The Gabriel Consulting Group, said it's unfortunate that Nichols only focused on the cases of online bullying and of people amassing large groups of online "friends." The archbishop is missing the benefits that can come with social netowrking, he said.

"He doesn't discuss how social networking has given people of all ages the opportunity to interact where they might not have interacted at all," Olds noted. "True, the interaction is virtual, but, for many people, this is an important first step towards helping them communicate better with real live people. Also, it's important to keep in mind that virtual communication and 'live' communication aren't mutually exclusive. The vast majority of people have rich relationships in both the virtual and real worlds."

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Sharon Gaudin

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