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Do social networking sites improve your ability to network in real life?

Social Networks and Meaningful Connection

Social networking sites usually make the news for negative reasons. In 2006, teen Megan Meier committed suicide after suffering cyber-bullying through the social networking site MySpace. It turned out that the person bullying her wasn't even real, but a fictitious profile created by the mother of a classmate. The case attracted a lot of attention and calls for increased regulations for online networks [source: ABC News].

However, online social networks can also positively affect real life. Recently in England, a teen girl noticed that one of her Facebook friends seemed suicidal. She took action and contacted authorities, who tracked the boy down and saved him from a drug overdose. Even actress Demi Moore has taken such action. She noticed a suicide threat in her Twitter feed and mobilized her followers to call local police [source: Matyszczyk]. Yes, these examples are extreme, but they do illustrate the power of social networking and social capital. Even though none of these people knew each other in real life, they still reached out to help -- because of their connections to each other online.

So what's the relationship between online social networks and real life? Some people worry that because we can so easily connect with people online, we are less capable of meaningful connection in real life. Long before the Internet, psychologists coined the term parasocial relationships to describe the one-sided connection people tend to make with characters on television or movie stars they read about in magazines. Following celebrities on Twitter is a good example of a parasocial relationship. You're privy to details about that person's life, yet the celebrity in question usually has no idea that you even exist.

Some worry that these parasocial relationships can crowd out some of your actual, emotional relationships with others. The good news is that experts haven't yet seen any statistics that prove this. They believe that online social networks and other types of media (like cell phones) add to our social networking skills, not take away from them [source: Rainie]. Find out how on the next page.