I need all the friends I can get

I spend a lot of time immersed in esafety and security issues and after four years I’m still trying to make sense of where we need to be with this – and it’s rarely as simple as some folk would have you believe.

This piece of writing is intended to help me understand; context, behaviours and meaning relating to online relationships – and these reflections may possibly be of some benefit to others in a similar place.

A key area of concern for parents, carers, and those with a responsibility for children, is young people’s perception of the importance and significance of online friends. As adults we are easy with our criticisms of children’s inability to understand the potential dangers of befriending others ‘on the internet’.

Teachers look on with horror when they see even young primary school children with hundreds of online friends and frequently see this as wreckless behaviour – leaving the children open to grooming, abduction .. and worse. This concern frequently translates into ‘banning’ Facebook et al or chastising the children for their ‘foolishness’, and sometimes, ‘stupidity’. This is closely followed by a whispered ‘I blame the parents’.

Meanwhile on the flip side we see alarmed, concerned parents and carers who are assaulted by media horror stories and, in turn, voice their frustrations; ‘I blame the school.. what do they teach them these days? They should spend a bit less time wasting money on computers and a bit more time teaching the kids properly.’

So what‘s the problem?

I’m frequently asked to go into schools as a response to incidents of online digital bullying between youngsters and I take this opportunity to discuss with the youngsters the meaning of ‘friend’ and ‘friendship’

Regardless of age the discussion goes something like this:

Me: So, what is a friend?

Kids: Someone you know

Someone you like

Someone who likes you

Someone who makes you laugh

And after a bit of investigation we usually get to a more considered discussion around

You have to be able to ‘see’ them to be a friend

Me: This is interesting, what about friends you know but have left the area – do you stop being friends when they are out of sight? Do pen pals who you’ve never met qualify as friends?

Almost always, regardless of primary, special or secondary, kids come to a conclusion that a friend is some you can ‘trust’.

Ah, ‘trust’..that’s important I think. My contribution to the discussion usually takes the form of me explaining that while I know many adults, it’s a very small select group that I would count as friends – and a simple definition for me is;

‘someone who, if on hard times, I‘d lend them £500 – or loan them my car’ – or more simply; ‘someone for whom I’d inconvenience myself – because I care about them’

Youngsters actually define and redefine their friendship criteria each time there’s an event such as a birthday party, sleep-over etc. where places are limited. This activity of ‘qualifying’ a friend is important and takes the discussion nicely to ‘How many online friends do you have?’

If I ask this question prior to the ‘friends’ discussion, kids will say proudly ‘ 300!‘ and ‘over 500’ and there will be gasps of admiration from others in the class. Ask the question after the discussion and they are already looking a little sheepish about the number of their online ‘friends’ – and how many of these can be ‘trusted’.

So, what’s the attraction of Big Numbers of online friends? Well you don’t need to be too clever to work out that the more friends you have, the more popular you must be – despite the fact that for mere mortals, managing hundreds of real friendships would be an impossible task.

It seems to me the problem lies in the word ‘friends’. If Facebook, Myspace etc. had named those people who can see your profile as ‘Associate Users of This Social Networking Service’ I’m pretty sure there would have been much less peer pressure for all of us to ‘add’ and ‘invite’ people we barely know, to our networks. “Friend’ has been hijacked by social networking sites and we’re paying the price.

If ‘adding’ people as friends is dangerous and problematic then the act of ‘unfriending’ and ‘blocking’ adds a whole new language  for potentially, hurtful, bullying and conflict causing behaviours. In our day, if we lost interest in someone we didn’t say ‘We’re going to the pub but you’re not invited – you’re unfriended’ – in real life we are far more subtle and organic in our relationships.

Fortunately kids can look to us adults as positive role models right? I’m thinking no.

The average age of Facebook users has jumped seven years from 26 to 33 while on the microblogging site Twitter the average is 31


Average User Figures

Average user has 130 friends on the site

Average user sends 8 friend requests per month


So what do we know?

I know it’s futile to chastise and punish kids for failing to see the dangers of making their personal details, and opportunities to interact, public to the world while there is clear peer pressure, and modeling, by adults that this behaviour is normal.

I’m in no position to throw stones – Twitter is my sin.

I’m ‘following’ 600+ people and being followed by over a 1000 – I’m also on 67 lists, and in Twitter terms these figures are quite low. Surely if I was better at my job I’d have more followers?

Ah, ‘followers’ – I had a conversation with my daughter’s history teacher last week where she mentioned ‘Active History’ – a revision website created and managed by @ russeltarr. I almost said ‘I know him’ – Woah! I don’t ‘know’ him – not in the biblical sense – we’ve just had a few exchanges of 140 characters.

While we’re talking biblical, I almost said ‘I’m one of his followers’. Now I’m all for a bit of mutual respect, and the lad’s got himself a cracking website there, but it would be wrong to suggest that I’m about to commit the rest of my life to His Word.

So, I too am in a cyber place where I’m unsure of the correct language and behaviour. At BETT2010 several people on Twitter came to find me – in the flesh, so to speak. Like a kind of edtech blind date I could see their surprise to see me in person; older, smaller, odder?

I also found myself struggling to introduce fellow tweeters to ‘real’ people; ‘That’s @digitalmaverick, we follow each other on Twitter’ – sounds weird whichever way you say it. ‘We like to share ideas about teaching and learning in 140 characters’ – sounds as bizarre as kids having friends on Facebook who they’ve never met doesn’t it?

1000 words later and I’m unsure I’m any clearer, let’s resort to bullet points

  • defining online relationships is difficult
  • the language of online relationships is unresolved
  • establishing who people really are is too hard, virtually
  • children won’t know how to behave and exist online until we do
  • there are adults on the internet who I haven’t met, who are so at ease with our online interactions, that we look forward to meeting person

I think it’s going to take some time for all of us to truly become comfortable with our digital identities and the nuances of those relationships. Until that time comes let’s try to show some tolerance and understanding – and help kids and adults benefit from the amazing opportunities that are out there.

end note- way back when I was a small boy, this book was in our house and I would read it time and time again 🙂


9 Responses to I need all the friends I can get

  1. Jan Webb says:

    Well said! In the process of becoming comfortable with the nuances of our digital identities and relationships, it’s really important that folk are aware that once the horse has bolted, it will be too late to shut the stable door – we need to make sure that what we say/the information that we allow to be public online follows the guidelines we teach our pupils…..

  2. dsugden says:

    I enjoyed reading this thank you.

    (anecdote follows)
    I was travelling from (A) to (B) with a colleague by train. We sat chatting and noticed the guy in front was editing with Audacity on his laptop. This was unusual – you normally only see Word files, Excel files and lots and lots of emails. We were intrigued – “what could he be doing?”, “why?”. As the use and editing of media files was very much our own ‘e’ territory, we needed to know.

    Turned out to be @joedale – someone I’d seen on Twitter or FriendFeed but who I’d learned to ‘trust’ the opinion of through his comments to @jamesclay. He’d similarly heard of me through my contributions to @jamesclay’s ‘e-learning stuff’ podcasts,

    But we’re not friends. Not in the sense that we ‘know’ someone, or that we have shared ‘real’ (as opposed to virtual) experiences. As you suggest, real friends come with a completely different set of values to virtual friends.

    And real friends remain friends despite distance and time.


  3. simfin says:

    Thanks both for making the time to comment – I appreciate it 🙂

  4. Josie Fraser says:

    I’m just going to chuck in a couple of dimensions to the friend thing.

    Trusting people online isn’t the same as trusting people offline. This is not because people I become spend a lot of time with online are less trust worthy than those I meet off line, just that my expectations may be different contextually. I can name several people I only know online that I’d make a judgment call are likely to be far more trustworthy a couple of people I know offline.

    If I was a kid struggling with a lot of offline issues, some people may actually be easier to trust and less likely to offer support or make judgments about me than people in my immediate circle – where it may not be safe for me to speak out, or I may not feel able too. This is a big issue, since we know that some people look to exploit vulnerability and trust online or offline. That’s why so many of the more serious abuse cases are about multiple abuse. It’s not as straight forward as just saying ‘never trust someone on the internet you don’t personally know’ however, and we need to be mindful of how vulnerable people of all ages have found support online. We also have to be mindful of people who may have been through abuse already – who may have issues with self worth, depression & personal boundaries. Risk taking is not an absolute.

    The people I know online aren’t a discreet group from the people I know offline – there are lots of relationship stage overlaps. Most of the adults I meet these days are people who I first met online. We need to re-evaluate the advise we give in light of changing social norms – otherwise kids will just ignore us.

    ‘Trust’ is itself a very subjective concept, & not necessarily any easier than ‘friend’ as far as concepts go. Many cyberbullying cases arise within friendship groups and bullying goes on around the power dynamics inherent in friendship groups – what’s needed in these cases is a way of navigating friendships and reaching outside of the group to get support.

    For me it’s not so much the actual words themselves that are worth fighting over – you may as well have a go at cosmetic companies for producing ‘natural makeup’. What’s important is that we support the critical thinking skills necessary for kids to understand they shouldn’t take words at face value and that we start talking to them about how they use social tech, and the critical debates – relationships, consent, privacy, risk, safety etc around their use. We are in a time of shifting social norms and kids should be at the heart of those debates.

  5. Fred Meijer says:

    Brilliant piece of text, however, it should be translated in Dutch also! If you don’t mind I’m lending a couple of phrases from you :-).

    Warms Regards,

  6. simfin says:

    Thanks Fred. I’d be interested to see where you put the phrases 😉

  7. Pat Parslow says:

    Good piece, and good comments too.

    I have to agree about the critical thinking skills being the most important thing. In many ways the issues are the same online and offline, in terms of how you make decisions about who to trust. The mechanisms differ, and the potential harm which may be done varies, but the framework of how to make the decisions – which can affect the rest of your life – are, I would argue, very similar.

    Both friendship and trust have elements of emotional and rational reasoning. Face to face contact has a fairly strong emphasis on the emotional, and can be readily exploited by ‘clever’ use of rhetoric, body language and the like. Consider who is most likely to knock at your door, unsolicited. It is probably salesmen, politicians and evangelists. The people seeking out the face to face contact are the very people you probably least want trying to persuade you about anything, and that should be a warning sign. Of course, face to face contact is extremely useful in building friendship bonds – emotional ties – which allow relationships to flourish, so I am not suggesting there are no good points to it, just that some of our societal norms about how communication is better face to face than online is probably misguided.

    The level of trust we build up in someone comes through regular contact. Essentially, if we can build a model in our heads about how they will respond to things, if we can predict their behaviour with a reasonable degree of accuracy, we feel we can trust them. This, in my experience, is actually slightly easier to achieve through online communication than off-line, because the frequency of contact is often greater.

    Something I have found particularly interesting over the years is that I can establish what I would consider to be a friendship online with someone, but when I meet them find that they are a ‘let-down’ “in real life”. However, in the online context, they can remain a perfectly good friend, supportive, trusting and trustworthy, etc. Similarly, I have good friends in real life who are quite useless as online friends – unresponsive, poor communicators, for example, despite being technically literate.

    I can’t help but feel there is a greater degree of honesty (in general) in people’s online communications. I can think of many situations, particularly as an adolescent, where it would have been just brilliant if someone had ‘unfriended’ me, rather than the subtle, organic processes we all use to edge someone out of a social group. It might be the sticking plaster ‘cruel to be kind’ approach, but it would have saved a lot of awkward moments and long periods of trying to work out what was going on!

    I think we have to accept that social norms are changing. They always have done, of course, but there is a new pace of change which is driven to some extent by the global, instantaneous nature of the internet. Younger generations are much freer to talk about sex and sexuality than I was as a youth; and that is almost certainly a healthy thing, although, there are issues with cultural boundaries as well as generational boundaries which might cause concern. As Josie says, we are in a time of shifting social norms, and kids should be at the heart of the debate – it is, in fact, essential that they are.

  8. simfin says:

    Thanks Pat. One of the clear areas of difficulty is an absence of a frame of reference. With almost all other norm changing issues we, as adults and role models have ‘some’ prior experience, attitudes and values. So for example changing behaviors and attitudes to gender, race, faith etc. can be addressed, in part, by our prior knowledge – often relating this to how we (and our older generation parents) responded, when we/they were young. None of us are able to draw on any kind of modelled behaviour for the huge range of communication opportunities available to young people today.

    Pretty much the only time someone my age wrote any kind of words or text to me as a teenager.. was on a birthday card.

  9. Judith Gunn says:

    I’m a little late to this debate, having only just discovered this blog (good blog by the way) – but I’m looking for guidance here, since I fear my own institution is about to put a silver bullet through the monster of social networking – I blogged about this a little while ago – as I am waaaaay over on the wrong side of the tracks – or am I? I can’t tell from this discussion! http://judithgunn.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/to-friend-or-not-to-friend/

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