Friends and Friendship, Virtually

Interview on the Benefits and Dangers of Internet Relationships

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By Carmen Elena Villa

ROME, MAY 21, 2009 ( The Internet is spreading more than information, it is also spreading friendship. But what are the consequences for a person’s psychology and capacity to communicate when his or her primary hangouts with friends are merely virtual?

Salesian Sister María Antonia Chinello, a professor at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences Auxilium, spoke with ZENIT about the changes that the Internet is bringing to the world of relationships.

Sister Chinello was one of the featured speakers at a conference organized last month by the Pontifical Lateran University on Benedict XVI’s message for this Sunday’s World Communication Day.

Here, she talks with ZENIT about the benefits and dangers of virtual friendships and how to educate the “digital generation.”

Q: In his new message for World Communications Day, the Pope refers extensively to online friendship. How do you think that these new technologies can modify the way of relating and communicating oneself?

Sister Chinello: The new technologies modify the shape of a relationship because they permit extending the face-to-face encounter. A person is always within reach of a mouse click. Every hour of the day, and also of the night, we can connect and be in contact with friends, chat, dialogue, exchange material, information, share music, images, videos. In this way, friendships can be maintained despite physical distances, geographical barriers and the limits of space.

In an educational key, Internet, the web, is a relational channel that gives professors, animators and educators the possibility of staying in contact with their students, dialoguing with them, outside of the daily environment that is sometimes filled with tensions and difficulties.

It has been proven that on the web, it is a bit easier to share troubles, hopes, fears, to speak of themes that might be embarrassing face to face because one fears the immediate reactions of the other.

But this can be a double-edged sword because in not seeing the other, one can express himself with greater liberty, but he could say things that are not true, thereby losing personal identity. It’s important to be aware of what we take of ourselves to the Net, our history, our hopes, our personal relationships.

Q: In his message, Benedict XVI particularly addresses the digital generation, that is, those for whom the Internet is nothing new, given that they’ve lived with the Net since they learned to write. What do see as risks for the communication of those who have grown up in the midst of these new technologies?

Sister Chinello: Within the digital generation that was born and grew up in the times of the Net, often there is no sense of the risk, above all when it comes to presenting oneself in the various realms of the Internet. Youth and kids are accustomed to speak, write or present themselves through texts, messages, images and video. Sometimes, they don’t seem to be aware of what they write or post on the Net. Once published, it’s visible to everyone and control can be lost over where this information can go or reach.

They don’t always know that all the data they put on their profiles, like preferences and interests, is very important information for the market and for publicity. Youth can dictate the guidelines and be those indicators of the consumer balance, above all in what has to do with innovations. Colombo, a professor at the Catholic University of Milan, affirms that young generations are the molders of technology, because they adapt it to the uses and the consumption that is most advantageous to them.

One risk that all of us have is that of multiplying relationships, to have a lot of friends on line, but to forget the name of the person who is beside us, who we interact with every day.

Another risk is that of how time passes on the Net. The amount of time that youth, and also adults, spend on the Internet is increasing more and more. The digital world is more colorful than daily reality. School, family, relationships, debates with those who don’t think the same as you, sometimes can drain a person, cause a feeling of being misunderstood. The world of the Net, on the other hand, is made of dreams, images, colors. From link to link, one can surf, discover, learn, read … and also get lost.

Given that on the Internet there is almost everything, and one can find anything, there is a weakening of the capacity to be selective with information, to critique it and discuss it. And it becomes easier to “surf” among the links that the search engines propose whenever a word is included.

These risks are introducing a debate among psychologists, because the first cases of Internet dependency are coming up, pathologies, people — also adults — who can no longer live without being connected.

Q: You speak a lot about the importance of the person and his identity in online communication. What essential traits of this identity are lacking in virtual communication?

Sister Chinello: In online communication there is an absence of the nonverbal and paralinguistic communication codes, such as facial expressions and tone of voice. The people of the Net have since the beginning always tried to overcome this “absence” by introducing strategies, means to give color and friendship to web communication. We can think of the little faces, the emoticons, the possibility of choosing a text color, of adding images, of writing in all caps, of synthesizing words, of using abbreviations, of exclamation points and questions marks, of repeated letters … This makes written communication draw very close to spoken. In communication, now we speak of “written-spoken” language.

For one who is accustomed to writing in a linear manner, it is difficult to understand the youth language of the Net. Professors are concerned because boys and girls in school no longer know how to write, they make spelling and grammar errors.

This contradiction of words and the possibility of expression has repercussions in the capacity to express one’s sentiments, to give space to one’s interiority, to relate one’s experiences.

Q: Concretely, something like Facebook, which gives the possibility of having on the same level friendships of the past and of the present, friendships made both physically and virtually — how do you think this will change the concept of friendship?

Sister Chinello: The Net, as I mentioned, extends relationships and amplifies the possibility of friendship, because there are no longer borders of space or time. By connecting, I can hear the voice of my friend who is waking up in the United States while I’m already in the afternoon in Italy. And together with friendship, grows learning and knowledge.

It is important to always ask oneself what relation these friendships have with real life. The Pope in his message asks youth not to make friendship something banal, to respect each other and grow together with others. There are a lot of Net environments; they depend on the length of the friendship, the maturity level of the communication: Youth are “nomads” and pass from one space to another, emigrate from one value to another, always in search of spaces where they can exchange information, communicate, relate, find themselves again. Younger ones might prefer Twitter, MySpace, Netlog. Older ones, Facebook. Later finding each other in their instant messaging, considering that as something more personal.

Q: For those of us who belong to the generation that has lived through this change in communication, how can we educate the digital generation to have a safe use of the Internet?

Sister Chinello: The first step is to understand that the Internet is one of the channels that is available today to communicate. It is one, but it is not the only one. To educate, therefore, in the “continuity” of communication: I can find my friends on the Net but I don’t forget those from school, from this group, from my
team, etc.

A second aspect, to educate relationships: Each interaction needs time to grow and mature, whether on the Net or outside of it. Discovery of the other is not immediate. Each encounter needs time. Therefore, one should educate them to not escape from the toil of communication. Sometimes it’s easier to enter into contact with a friend with a click of the mouse than to wait and have patience so that the other smiles at me, speaks to me, opens up to me.

In the end, it’s a matter of not leaving youth and kids alone in these experiences online, but rather to be together with them and maybe surf together in the discovery of the Internet. Some investigations made by the Catholic University of Milan show that younger ones use the Net to be together with their friends, to download music, videos, to play. For them the social dimension, the strength of the group, the relationship with companions is still very strong. Based on this reality, why not educate from the beginning in respect, in friendship, in dialogue with others?

[Translation by Kathleen Naab]
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