The social networking website Bebo has just celebrated its first birthday. Already it is the most popular social website in the UK, the fourth most accessed site in the UK and the second in Ireland. Similar sites are mushrooming throughout the internet. MySpace is the best known, but Orkut, Facebook, Xanga, Friendster and many others have scores of millions of users worldwide.
With so many young people involved, it is no wonder that sometimes things go wrong, awfully wrong. We have all read headlines like: "NZ teen sells drugs through Bebo", "13-year-old Californian girl victim of intense abuse through MySpace", "Belfast authorities dismayed at sectarian violence found in some Bebo sites", "Dublin rapists lure girls to party with Bebo", "Misuse of Facebook forces college in New Jersey to expel student", "Government department in Brazil accuses Google of facilitating criminal activity through its social website Orkut". Such is the concern expressed by parents and educators that two senior executives of California-based Bebo, Michael Birch, the founder and CEO and Rachel O’Connell, the Chief Safety Officer, are visiting the UK and Ireland at present to meet police and social community groups.
Apart from worrying, many parents are puzzled. What's the attraction in this alternative universe? "Because it’s fun!" according to Michael Birch. Perhaps there's little more to it than that. Teenagers and young adults love sharing stories, showing off pictures, making comments and gossiping, making friends, listening to each other’s playlists, watching funny video clips made by their mates, and so on. They can create their own universe and view other personal universes. The site belongs to them, not to some unfriendly webmaster.
Social networking websites are incredibly addictive! Young people can spend three or four hours at in one sitting trawling through their favourite. Now that they can also watch videos which have been posted on the site, users have access to hours of entertainment while they wait for replies to their comments and blog entries – or just in case no one bothers to reply. The time wasted is incalculable. One teenager posted a wail of regret: "Why, oh why was Bebo ever invented? I don't even want to think about how many hours of my life it has now consumed." At least she was honest.
How should parents react?
They come in different forms and carry different content, but whatever the shape, these sites are here to stay. Parents and educators cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand — especially if these novel means of communication have so great an influence on the young people in their care. The alternative is surrendering their education and safety to God knows whom.
The lurid side of websites like Bebo and MySpace has been widely reported — young people receive or gain access to inappropriate material, become vulnerable to bullying, can easily fall into the clutches of predators, and so on. Under pressure from media and parents, companies like Google, which owns Orkut, MySpace and Bebo have been implementing safety measures to minimise the abuse. Most consist of reporting mechanisms back to head office (or even directly to police) when witnessing or experiencing abuse, with a response guaranteed within a day. This is still largely theory. What's even more urgent is something to prevent under-age use (Bebo limits the age at 13, Orkut and MySpace at 14) or falsification of age by paedophiles posing as teenagers.
But even if it were possible to shelter young people from the bullies and criminals, there is a more insidious problem inherent in the medium. Living on social networking sites impairs the formation of young people’s character:

  • They foster curiosity, vanity and jealousy. The sites basically constitute a gigantic popularity contest.
  • They encourage dishonesty: you can provide any age that suits your purpose, and you can fantasise about your weekend – who is to know what really happened?
  • Users tend to live in their own little world, and excessive use can make them forget how to behave properly in the company of others.
  • They discourage deep and reflective thinking — not to mention proper spelling!.
  • Most importantly, they become a real obstacle for genuine empathic communication.

Although many teenagers now use social networking websites to make friends, they miss out on a key aspect of genuine friendship, empathic communication. At a computer screen, using broken and coded language, you cannot see, hear or touch or experience the feelings of another person. Even webcams are hardly a substitute for a face-to-face relationship. This feature could ultimately have serious implications for the future of society. It is important nowadays to foster face-to-face relationships in the home and elsewhere: having meals together or going on outings with family and friends, playing team sport or even just watching TV together and discussing it afterwards.
The companies will never do anything to help teenagers to develop socially in the real world. In fact, they are working to make their sites even more addictive — soon it will be possible to access them from mobile phones. Many parents already make the mistake of allowing unrestricted access to the internet in their children's bedrooms. Access through a mobile will make it even more difficult for them to monitor what is going on.
So what can concerned parents do? A lot — but don't expect that it will be easy.
First of all, teenagers should be warned of the dangers. A few horror stories are usually sufficiently intimidating to deter a youngster from providing a phone number or address and other personal information to strangers or from accepting as friends in their site people they have never met in their lives.
Young people need to take into account, too, that anything nasty they write or post on the internet could boomerang. Prospective employers are screening new recruits based on searches of social networking websites. (Entrepreneurial geeks have launched a counterstrike with a company, ReputationDefender, which removes incriminating material — for a fee, of course.)
Parents should also learn how to access the site. This isn't spying; they are just reading what millions of strangers are also reading. If a child knows that her mum or dad is savvy enough to take a look, they might think twice before posting or sharing inappropriate material. As shock therapy, try calling your child to breakfast one morning by her MySpace username and see how she reacts.
Parents and educators need to form the consciences of those under their charge. If they want to, young people will find a way to circumvent parental controls and to crash through safety barriers. So the most effective way to protect them against inappropriate technology is to teach them how to use their freedom well. If they genuinely want what is beneficial and suitable and spurn what is degrading and harmful, they won't be sucked into the virtual world created by Bebo and its buddies.
Luison Lassala is director of Anchor Youth Centre in Dublin and a freelance IT consultant.