Kim Barlow-Miles Counselling

Social Networking: a force for good, or…?

August 2011 may be remembered for scenes of violence and lawlessness in some of our cities which shocked many of us to the core. On Tues 16th August, BBC Radio Nottingham’s Morning Show with Mark Dennison, invited me to contribute to a discussion about the role of social networking media in society today, given some evidence that this was involved in orchestrating what took place. I have an interest in this contemporary phenomen, both in my role as a Magistrate on the Nottingham Bench, and also from the psychological perspective, in my work as a Psychotherapist.

By social networking, I mean, internet sites such as Facebook, MSN,  Chat Forums for special interest groups, dating websites, Twitter…….but also email and texting. 

There are a number of BIG PLUSSES with this instant form of communication; for example, at its most powerful best, the world-wide-web provides fast accurate information 24/7, with maximum convenience. This meets a demand we seem to have, in these times, for ‘answers NOW!’ ….. and then, the pressing desire to swiftly share what we have learned, with others.  With the press of a button, we can upload images to entertain others. Or indeed to sadden, and stimulate to action eg fundraise for disaster-stricken countries. The internet is a powerful lobbying resource for political and other change, via online petitions, for example.  

From my work with clients, I am aware of the importance of special interest chat rooms/forums. They have become a valuable source of support for some people with, for example, disabilities or mental health conditions, and for those coping with other difficult experiences such as bereavement, trauma and addictions….not forgetting parents and carers.    

Another PLUS, for many, is access to Dating Websites; clients recovering from relationship loss, sometimes report finding this a helpful part of moving on; countering loneliness by making new friendships, even if not ‘replacing’ the original loved one. Dating sites, MSN, Facebook, Twitter etc all offer opportunities to engage with others at a distance - without the risks of face to face meeting. For clients experiencing generalised anxiety, and particularly social anxiety, this form of social interaction may provide a safe space for experimenting with meeting others and relationship building.    

Humans are a relating species: there are a range of evolutionary reasons for this, for example procreation and security.  Maslow (1954) identified a hierarchy of needs, with the most fundamental being biological needs. When these are met, our security needs are the next priority, followed by love and belongingness needs. This latter enhances our feeling of security also… And in some ways, a social networking site such as Facebook offers a tempting fusion of security and belongingness at our fingertips, as we accumulate ‘friends’ and, potentially receive a comforting volume of responses to the detail of our everyday experiences  of self, the world and others. ‘Friends are the family you choose’ …

No doubt, there are other PLUSSES too. However, many clients have shared with me more negative experiences of social networking in all its forms.

For example, are these, ‘real’ friends in whom you can place trust? One client told me that she had a sort of mind-picture of her closest friends (in a happy, calm mood), and did not really register the significance of the others picking up her messages - and also did not factor in that the close friends might be having a bad day… A misplaced sense of security can lead to confiding personal information, disclosing secrets, perhaps off-loading a ’stream of consciousness’, private thoughts, or venting in the heat of the moment….or maybe uploading to U-Tube personally compromising photos.  Within seconds, this naivete can go global, as a ‘friend’ (for fun, or maybe, through malice), pings it onwards……with devastating consequences for the originator, who may be publicly ridiculed, experience shame and a sense of betrayal as personal vulnerabilities are published and available online for the foreseeable future. Some clients have also belatededly become aware that an ex-partner has been spying on their private Facebook account, well-aware of favourite passwords…. 

Bullying is another recognised negative aspect of social networking media.  This can take the form of overt threats or more subtle pressure. It is now thought that some of the participants in the violent lawlessness during August were ‘rallied’ by online or mobile messaging - no excuse for not being there, you must have got the message! (Equally, it is likely that the lure of being part of a powerful group and the stimulation of risking arrest, were factors in the appeal, particularly to young males). Cyber bullying is also, sadly, rapidly becoming one of the most common form amongst schoolchildren.

These experiences have an adverse effect on mental health conditions; for example, bullying can lead to a sense of isolation, which is associated with depression. If someone is already depressed and  ‘friends’ fail to respond as hoped to a text/email/Facebook message (or their responses are misinterpreted!), this can enhance the sense of rejection, and low self-esteem. The ongoing difficulty with all non face-to-face communications, is that we cannot always accurately interpret the senders intent; there is an absence of tone, pause, emphasis, and facial expression/mood indication.

In my observation, as reported from clients, for some people, these social networking systems become addictive; there is excitement as the mobile buzzes again, or the PC ‘pings’ to announce ‘incoming’. This reduces the need for face-to-face contact, and there is a risk that social interaction, eg ’small talk’ skills will be lost. People experiencing social anxiety may never have the incentive to overcome their fears, and may continue to avoid real relationships. They are also vulnerable to a worsening of their anxiety because of the tendency to find evidence (eg through misinterpretation of non-verbal communciations) to justify and confirm their belief system about the personally threatening, judgemental world.

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