By MARTHA IRVINE, AP National Writer
For some, it would be unthinkable -- certain social suicide. But Gabe
Henderson is finding freedom in a recent decision: He canceled his
No longer enthralled with the world of social networking, the
26-year-old graduate student pulled the plug after realizing that a lot
of the online friends he accumulated were really just acquaintances.
He's also phasing out his profile on Facebook, a popular social
networking site that, like others, allows users to create profiles, swap
message and share photos -- all with the goal of expanding their circle
of online friends.
"The superficial emptiness clouded the excitement I had once felt,"
Henderson wrote in a column in the student newspaper at Iowa State
University, where he studies history. "It seems we have lost, to some
degree, that special depth that true friendship entails."
Across campus, journalism professor Michael Bugeja -- long an
advocate of face-to-face communication -- read Henderson's column
and saw it as a "ray of hope." It's one of a few signs, he says, that
some members of the tech generation are starting to see the value of
quality face time.
As the novelty of their wired lives wears off, they're also are
getting more sophisticated about the way they use such tools as social
networking and text and instant messaging -- not just constantly
using them because they're there.
"I think we're at the very beginning of them reaching a saturation
point," says Bugeja, director of Iowa State's journalism school and
author of "Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a
Though he's not anti-technology, Bugeja often lectures students about
"interpersonal intelligence" -- knowing when, where and for what
purpose technology is most appropriate.
He points out the students he's seen walking across campus, holding
hands with significant others while talking on cell phones to someone
else. He's also observed them in coffee shops, surrounded by people,
but staring instead at a computer screen.
"True friends," he tells them, "need to learn when to stop blogging
and go across campus to help a friend."
In the meantime, he says, many professors have begun setting their own
limits, banning students from surfing the Internet during lectures.
Of course, these forms of communication continue to dominate. In the
October issue of the journal Pediatrics, for instance, researchers at
Stanford University released findings from an ongoing study of students
at an upper-middle income high school in the San Francisco area. One
written survey found that the large majority of students were members of
at least one social networking site -- 81 percent of them on MySpace.
They also found that 89 percent of those students had cell phones, most
of them with text and Web surfing capabilities.
They are more wired than ever -- but they're also getting warier.
Increasingly, they've had to deal with online bullies, who are posting
anything from unflattering photos to online threats.
Privacy issues also are hitting home, most recently when students
discovered that personal updates on their Facebook pages were being
automatically forwarded to contacts they didn't necessarily want to
have the information. Facebook was forced to let users turn off the
data stream after they rebelled.
Increasingly, young people also are realizing that things they post on
their profiles can come back to haunt them when applying for school or
"Maybe everything we thought was so great wasn't as great as we
thought," says Tina Wells, the 20-something CEO of Buzz Marketing, a
New York-based firm with young advisers all over the world.
She is among those who wonder if, sometimes, simple face-to-face
communication might work better.
In many instances, says 27-year-old Veronica Gross, it does.
"By and large, I would say most of my very geeky social circle prefers
face-to-face interaction to mere Internet communication," says Gross,
an avid online gamer who is also a doctoral student studying
neuroscience at Boston University.
She sees faceless communication as a supplement to everyday
interactions, not a replacement. This sentiment also was the
conclusion of a study done by the Pew Internet & American Life
Project. The study, released earlier this year, found that Internet
users tend to have a larger network of close and significant contacts
— a median of 37 compared with 30 for nonusers.
Indeed, Steve Miller, a sophomore at Rollins College in Winter Park,
Fla., says social networking can be an "extremely effective" way to
publicize events to large groups -- and even to help build a sense of
community on campus.
He joined Facebook as a way to meet people before he started school,
but also quickly learned that it had limitations, too.
"I discovered, after meeting many of these (online) friends, that a
good Facebook profile could make even the most boring person somewhat
interesting," says Miller, who's 19 and now a sophomore.
He's also not always thrilled with text messaging via cell phones,
which can be a quick way to say "have a good day" or to coordinate a
plan to meet up at a noisy concert.
"Text messaging has become the easy way out," Miller says.
He's had friends cancel a night out with a text message to avoid
having to explain. He's also seen some people ask for dates via text
to escape the humiliation of hearing a "no" on the phone or in person.
"Our generation needs to get over this fear of confrontation and
rejection," he says.
The focus, he and others say, needs to be on quality communication, in
Back in Iowa, Henderson is enjoying spending more face-to-face time
with his friends and less with his computer. He says his decision to
quit MySpace and Facebook was a good one.
"I'm not sacrificing friends," he says, "because if a picture, some
basic information about their life and a Web page is all my friendship
has become, then there was nothing to sacrifice to begin with."
On the Net:
Social networking sites: http://www.myspace.com,
http://www.facebook.com, http://www.impnow.com, http://www.linkedin.com
Martha Irvine is a national writer specializing in coverage of people in
their 20s and younger. She can be reached at mirvine(at)ap.org
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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