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If parents learn about their children's online world, they can help deal with problems.

THE head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales last week warned parents about the dangers of social networking websites. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said the sites drew teenagers into ''transient'' relationships, suggested the internet treats friendship as a commodity and argued that the collapse of such friendships could leave adolescents suicidal. He said he was concerned young people were losing the ability to form stable relationships in the real world and that he believed social networking sites and texting are dehumanising community life and killing the simple art of how to talk to people. With respect to the archbishop, that attitude is so last century. Nichols' comments reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how social networking technology is used and how it has changed in the past decade. The internet was a different place in the 1990s. A decade ago, only about 10 per cent of teenagers had access to it. Most online social interaction took place in chat rooms frequented by people you were unlikely to know in person. The chat rooms were organised by interests - anything from film discussion groups to teen hang-outs to rooms with more adult intent. Participants had handles such as sweet16, sLAYER11, feelmybulge or gollumKissa. Advertisement The concern was that vulnerable teenagers, with limited experience of the world, were entering an unknown place without adult guidance. With such a small portion of the population having a presence online, anyone adolescents had contact with there was likely to be a stranger whose intent was immediately suspect. The suspicion - and fear - was that young people were becoming addicted to a dark, dangerous online life and their real-world relationships with friends and family would wither and die. The difference today is that because most people have a presence online, modern communication technologies - social networking sites, texting, instant messaging and so on - are used predominantly to enrich existing friendships, not to seek connections with strangers. That does happen, of course, and can have its own benefits - especially for the socially awkward and those with niche interests. But according to a study released in May by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 91 per cent of adolescents in the US use online networks to communicate predominantly with people they already know, and fewer than half (49 per cent) say they also go online seeking new friends. Research also suggests that the new communication tools available to young people help enrich their offline friendships rather than commoditise them or replace them with superficial relationships. In a report published in February in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Patti Valkenburg and Jochen Peter argued that social networking technology encourages increased openness and honesty about personal issues - feelings, concerns, vulnerabilities - that adolescents can otherwise feel awkward discussing. Such ''hyper-personal'' internet talk, the psychologists found, stimulates deeper friendships

We need to learn how to navigate new waters and teach that to our children. But these are also short-sighted complaints. This is partly why adolescents are more open online but the absence of social cues also enables cruelty and degrees of rudeness that are less prevalent in face-to-face communication . facial expressions . and lazy thinking practices. managing how we appear to others. concerns about the shortening of attention spans. the encouragement of instant gratification and self-centredness. a study conducted last year by the University of Minnesota suggested that using social networking sites improved technology and communication skills. Should we call for limits to writing? Complaints about teenagers having short attention spans and being self-centred predate electricity. boosted creativity and exposed students to new and diverse world views. Writing is a technology that shapes and limits how we think.that we use to gauge the emotional responses of those we speak to. tone of voice.that help youngsters cope with the stress of teenage life and results in happier individuals. Gordon Farrer is technology editor. art. Boys. Social networking also raises privacy issues.they seem to be doing just fine already. developing identity. Social networking activity taught students how to edit content. In addition to these social benefits.body language. Technology has moulded our behaviour for thousands of years. notoriously reluctant when it comes to discussing feelings. wrestling with issues of self-worth and popularity. shopping centre or wherever else teens gather. These students also tended to do better in exams. let alone the internet. deal with that. So the archbishop's concerns about social networking technologies dehumanising community life and the transient nature of online relationships are unfounded.which has obvious ramifications for cyber-bullying and online harassment. And yet there are other concerns the archbishop could have raised about the effects of technology. tend to benefit more than girls from this effect. But when behaviour is less than ideal. don't blame the delivery method. Much of our adolescence is spent learning how to find our way in the world. Or let them teach us . Social networking sites are as useful for learning how to relate with the world as the playground. to think about design and encouraged the production and sharing of poetry. the potential for stalking when too much information is posted online. The ancient Greeks had a bit to say on that subject. photographs and video content. Online communication lacks the usual social cues . Knee-jerk negative reactions to technology are not useful. .