technologyvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Friends and “Friends”

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“Friend” is a suggestive word, loaded as it is with warmth, intimacy, harmlessness. Having a friend is always a good thing. The word was a shrewd choice to represent Facebook connections, because the word itself lulls you past any critical perspective about the relationships you clickably create.

With the growth of Web-based intimacy, it’s easy for us to feel comfort in/with our digital network of friends, all those posters and tweeters and texters. Yet even adults have missteps of acquaintanceship in cyberspace. Children have enough trouble navigating the spectrum of human interactions in the real world, in particular learning to recognize threat. Resting layer of virtual relationships on top has, of course, not made it easier to determine who is your friend — and who is not.

As “superstorm” Sandy swept through South Jersey last week, it obliterated many things, including the story that had emerged the week before about the murder of Autumn Pasquale, a little girl in the town of Clayton who was killed following an interaction with someone online about BMX bikes.

She had conversed on Facebook with one of her alleged killers, doing something kids now do all of the time: Having dialogue, developing connections with people they don’t know much about in real life, little relationships crackling to life in the ether.

The alluring little “Add Friend” link, right near that alluring “Like” button. It’s easy — click! — to reach out. But what is a friend? What does the nomenclature mean? In “Faux Friendship,” a piece he wrote a few years ago The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Deresiewicz wondered if our friendships now amount to “anything more than a form of distraction.” He says, “In retrospect, it seems inevitable that once we decided to become friends with everyone, we would forget how to be friends with anyone.”

I do believe that you can develop community online. While Deresiewicz takes a hard look at the relationships of the Web, many have described their successful forays into the world of the digital and the human contact they found there. Back when the Internet was just getting steam, Grateful Dead lyricist and early “netizen” John Perry Barlow wrote about how much solace he found on the Web when his partner died.

But for kids, maybe the real question is more fundamental, a basic aspect of their development: Do they understand what a friend is? As kids, let’s face it, we often don’t, which is of course a key reason why parents restrict their children’s worlds for a long time, only gradually letting them move outward. We’re worried about lions and tigers and all that, but isn’t the biggest fear not the snarling teeth but the smiling face of evil, the man who claims he needs help finding his lost puppy? He looks like a friend. The worst offenders of crimes have always been those who exploit friendship, safety, and the Web has smoothed down some of the barriers that help us realize who they are.

Sitting in the comfort of your family home, those types of predators often seem surreal. It seems we have control over the physical distance we keep from them. But as with many, if not most, human relationships, we can’t predict where they will end up and  how quickly they will get there, so we are in danger of spinning from the digital to the real world at too quick a pace.

We know children aren’t ready for this, and, I keep finding, parents often aren’t able to monitor it either. As Deresiewicz notes, “In order to know people, you have to listen to their stories.” Even then, we still make mistakes in the company we keep. But if the stories are not even that, just blips, just updates, how do we teach wariness when friendship amounts to a harmless collection of two-dimensional facts?

Children make these contacts in electronic spaces, and there aren’t enough eyes, enough second opinions to help them navigate this territory. They say things online they would never say in person. They feud. They bully. But sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes they connect with a person online and then cross over into the real world based on that connection.

I think about that little Autumn and her interest in soccer, bikes.

Recently a real friend of mine emailed me after seeing that one of my kids’ security settings on a social media site were too low. Her message was somewhat tentative, taking on a tone we might adopt when we feel we don’t want to tread on someone’s parenting turf.

But I was so thankful for that message. It always did take a village, because it took many eyes, many perspectives to make sure the little ones didn’t wander too close to the alligators. Now, those alligators can be little blips of light, representing themselves as that thing we most desire. We need all of the vigilance we can, from all of our friends, in whatever form they might take. And that still may not even be enough.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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5 Responses to “Friends and “Friends””

  1. Good points.
    Other than you being a teacher, and lumping you into that union participating, highly democrat group, I am confused as to what the “Top ten reasons” to re-elect the president is doing at the bottom of your post. Even more confused after reviewing the reasons listed and noting the “because he’s black” reasoning.

  2. PS – how you teachers like Christie now?!
    Should make you want to vote for another Republican!

  3. CW, the links to the top ten list and the NYC marathon are at the bottom of this page because our site automatically shows the links to the posts that were published directly before and after the one you’re reading.

  4. Great, well written article, Scott!

  5. Amen… Our children are brought up in this world filled with technology and often need assistance on how to navigate the waters. Great article, Scott!

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