Faith-Filled Social Networking
What is a Social Networking Site?
Any site that allows a user to create a public profile, facilitates and displays connections to other users and allows users to view and peruse the connections of other users is a social networking site. Facebook, MySpace and LiveJournal are popular examples. Each site has its own privacy rules; for example, MySpace allows users to specify whether profiles become public or restricted to friends only, while Facebook has a complicated system of manually operated privacy settings for each set of information.
According to a study conducted in part by Cox Communications, 72% of adolescents have a profile on a social networking site. Despite some of the dangers surrounding social websites, they serve as exceptional interpersonal and identity building tools. The Pew Research Center found that 65% of teens had an experience on a site that contributed positively to self-esteem. Children network with others who share similar interests, which comes in handy for those living in rural areas. This in turn fosters a sense of belonging and aids in the development of social skills. Some sites, like Livewire, provide a therapeutic outlet for emotions through writing and chatting with friends. The sites serve as a new, easily accessible form of self-expression. “Friending” people in other countries also helps educate teens about different cultures and broadens their worldview.
The Church and Social Networking
Pope Benedict XVI, like Pope John Paul II before him, recognizes the importance of social media as a tool for evangelization. Pope Benedict notes that special attention should be paid to the “various types of websites, applications and social networks which can help people today to find time for reflection and authentic questioning.” Pope John Paul II said:
The Internet can offer magnificent opportunities for evangelization if used with competence and a clear awareness of its strengths and weaknesses. Above all, by providing information and stirring interest it makes possible an initial encounter with the Christian message, especially among the young who increasingly turn to the world of cyberspace as a window on the world.
In the same way that youth who attend a World Youth Day pilgrimage benefit from meeting Catholics who gather from all corners of the earth to celebrate their faith, the Internet and social media networks give youth an opportunity to connect with young Catholics worldwide and to be inspired by the universality of the Catholic Church. One has only to search the Internet to find the many ways the Catholic Church is utilizing social media to spread Christ’s message. Below are a few examples:
Youtube, a video sharing website, contains many videos that relate to important moments in recent Church history, such as the Beatification Mass of Pope John Paul II.
Despite its positive aspects, it is important to approach online activity with a degree of caution. It is critical to discuss security issues with your child or student. Sit down with him or her and have an open, positive talk about using the sites. Talk about the consequences of posting information. Warn him or her to think twice about uploading pictures that reveal a home address, or posting information about his or her current location. Get to know the site your child wants to use - investigate the privacy settings and go through them together. For children under the age of 13, find appropriate websites like Kidswirl, Whyville and Kidsworld that have a TRUSTe Children’s Privacy seal, an ESRB Privacy Online Program seal or a VeriSign Secured seal.
Always have a set of rules for computer use, especially for children under 16. Possible rules include needing to know the “friends” on the profile in real life and listing sites that are off limits. With your child’s knowledge, set up a profile on the same site to monitor his/her activity (but not obsessively!). Know their passwords and the sites they use, especially if they are under the age of 14. Use the parental controls on your computer to restrict websites and tell the child to trust his/her instincts when it comes to communicating with a stranger.
By discussing safety issues, monitoring from a distance and taking the necessary privacy precautions, you can grant your child access to a wealth of positive social, intellectual and cultural experiences.