Teens say online directories addictive but valuable tools

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 11, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Addiction, obsession, revolution &8212; call it what you will, but the newest form of communication is changing the lives of our young people.

And understanding the change falls deep into the crevasses of the generation gap.

It&8217;s not quite blogging, not quite Internet chatting, more of an online directory or simply &8220;a place for friends,&8221; as one site calls itself.

Email newsletter signup

Regardless, it&8217;s hot.

What is it?

Facebook started on college campuses in 2004. Last fall it extended to high schools. Myspace &8212; open to anyone &8212; started in 2003 and was bought last summer by Rupert Murdoch&8217;s media company.

Both online directories allow members to build profiles, post pictures, send messages and link with friends. Depending on the chosen level of privacy, most information posted is available to any other member.

The number of members on both sites is in the millions, with 20,000 new Facebook accounts added daily.

All local high schools are recognized on Facebook, and more than 500 Miss-Lou teens are registered as members. Countless more local college students and young adults participate in Facebook, Myspace or both.

&8220;I think it&8217;s addicting,&8221; Trinity Episcopal senior Trey Wallace said. &8220;It&8217;s interesting to look at profiles.&8221;

Wallace said he doesn&8217;t spend a lot of time on the online sites, but said he does check it once a day.

Vidalia High School freshman Kency Halford has a more severe addiction.

&8220;From 4 (p.m.) to 9 I&8217;m on there,&8221; she said. &8220;Facebook is my favorite. It&8217;s easy. It allows you to talk to people and leave comments.&8221;

Most high school students have around 100 Facebook or Myspace friends, some have closer to 500.

&8220;I have friends in Mississippi and all over the U.S.,&8221; Cathedral junior Matthew Sanders said. &8220;I do it to keep in touch and meet new people. Sometimes (Facebook friends) are friends of a friend, so I know they are OK.&8221;

Members on either site can search for the name of a friend and ask for the other person&8217;s approval to be a friend. Approved friends appear in a list on each member&8217;s profile.

And the teens acknowledge that they don&8217;t really know all their friends.

&8220;Some of your Facebook friends aren&8217;t you real friends,&8221; Cathedral freshman Thomas Rodgers said. And they aren&8217;t always people you&8217;d choose to hang out with, he said.

But, for the most part, if someone requests to be your friend, you don&8217;t deny them, the students said.

Communication change

Today&8217;s young folks know more about each other than they ever have before, but not because they talk more.

It&8217;s become standard practice for college students and teenagers to look up a Facebook or Myspace profile of someone new in class. Profiles typically tell everything from birthdays and favorite movies to dating relationship status and family background.

But that&8217;s just the basics.

&8220;It keeps you up with all the gossip and stuff,&8221; Vidalia High junior Callie Keller said. &8220;You know your friends better.&8221;

And your enemies better, a classmate added.

Miss-Lou schools have rules against viewing Facebook and Myspace in the buildings, but it&8217;s not hard to find the sites up on school computers. And it&8217;s common practice to send a Facebook message to someone sitting right next to you.

At home, teens send the online messages back and forth instead of using the phone.

Trinity Episcopal teacher Linda Rodriquez, who has researched the online sites, said this type of communication is just the next step in a technology-driven world.

&8220;Think about how we as grownups check our e-mail,&8221; she said. &8220;That&8217;s what these kids are doing. Instead of picking up the phone they are logging onto Facebook.

&8220;That&8217;s a natural progression, and I feel there&8217;s nothing we as parents can do about it, I don&8217;t think we should. It&8217;s good for our kids to have an outlet.&8221;

But Facebook communication isn&8217;t eliminating face-to-face talk Rodriquez and most teens said, it&8217;s only adding another form of communication.

And that&8217;s natural too, said Ralph Braseth, director of Student Media at Ole Miss.

&8220;They are seeking community,&8221; he said. &8220;Friendships take a lot of time, and students love a social network.&8221;

Today&8217;s high school and college students have grown up in a technical world, Braseth said, and online communication is simply their way of talking.

Bigger picture

Facebook and Myspace aren&8217;t just time killers though, Braseth said, they are becoming a form of media.

Braseth, the publisher of the campus newspaper, joined Facebook just after the school let out for Christmas holidays to find out the identity of students killed in a car accident.

&8220;We had a triple fatality on the highway,&8221; he said. &8220;The police were keeping tight lipped, and one of the students said &8216;I&8217;ll show you where to get that information.&8217; Within five clicks we are looking at friends who are giving their eulogies. All of a sudden you have confirmation from five to 10 people that this is the person.&8221;

And Facebook has the same advertisers as the college newspaper, Braseth said.

&8220;Advertisers don&8217;t care about journalism,&8221; he said. &8220;If major newspapers are not worried right now, they are crazy. It&8217;s going to have a profound impact.&8221;