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By Ross T. Runfola

The Manti Te’o Internet saga may be unusual but it reflects the growing trend of Americans to communicate in online chat rooms, in which participants are generally unknown to each other, with a greater frequency than they do in face-to-face communication with friends.

As American society becomes larger and more complex, and social networking on the computer gives at least the outer appearance of some form of anonymity, it is an unfortunate truism that most adults of all ages have more virtual “friends” they interact with on Facebook, MySpace and other sites than in their own communities.

The concept of Internet friends one does not know appears a contradiction in terms, but this new form of communication, cloaked in relative anonymity, has led to the great danger of over-sharing, one of the newest words in the lexicon, which means divulging excessive or inappropriate personal information to another, usually accompanied by discomfort by the receiver of the message. Communication specialists find over-sharing becoming more commonplace on social Internet sites for individuals who would never contemplate the same disclosure face to face.

College students should be especially vigilant in this time of increased social networking to reveal only discrete thoughts and pictures that cannot be used against them later.

Sociologists find some of these same college students feel a vague discomfort at the lack of substance of their Internet social world and thirst for more meaningful relationships in face-to-face communication whether it exists or not. A substantial minority of these students appear convinced the kind of encounter they have with people in direct, face-to- face interaction, referred to as “friends with benefits,” is an acceptable new phenomenon of modern culture, as if you can have sex with friends with no emotional attachment thereafter.

Although this kind of casual relationship has been in existence for many years, it is still fraught with danger, especially for most college women. Research, especially from Catherine M. Grello, et al., finds casual sexual encounters have a greater negative impact on college women than men, since college men most often enjoy sex as a game or conquest. College women most often become “friends with benefits” with the expectation that it will lead to romantic emotional intimacy with their “bed buddy” becoming their boyfriend. They are also more prone to depression, lower self-esteem and peer group rejection than men.

Ironically, increased Internet disclosure with virtual “friends” and “friends with benefits” emanates from the same sense of isolation, and sometimes alienation, from the modern vagaries of a complex society, and the search for a more meaningful life.

Ross T. Runfola, an attorney, writer and poet, is a professor of sociology at Medaille College.