Today's networking sites have given a new twist to an old social conundrum. Adi Bloom reports
It used to be that schoolgirls wheedled and bargained with each other in the playground, negotiating who was whose best friend. Now, they are more concerned about whether they are rated top, second or third virtual friend.
Teachers regularly worry about the strangers and potential predators pupils may be meeting online and on social networking sites such as Bebo, Facebook, and MySpace. But new research reveals such sites are chiefly used as an extension of existing school relationships.
Jessica Ringrose, lecturer at the Institute of Education in London, worked with teenagers at two schools, examining how their use of social networking sites affected their friendships in school. In particular, she looked at the use of Bebo, the most popular site among the pupils she interviewed.
"Rather than extending existing social networks to include more people, we found that Bebo is amplifying current relations," she says. "For the most part, the young people said they do not talk to people online whom they do not talk with face to face."
In fact, the sites are a handily downloadable version of the playground popularity contest. Sites such as MySpace and Bebo allow users to rank their friends by preference. This, says Dr Ringrose, is both loved and loathed by teen-agers. "There are numerous ways young people on social sites measure their success: the number of friends, the number of hits and the number of comments.
"The commodification of friendship creates closed communities, clearly demarcating who is friends with whom. Popularity is still important, and is on visual display."
One interviewee, Louisa, 16, told Dr Ringrose that these are complex negotiations: "They want to be your first friend, but then why aren't you their first friend? Why are you their second and third?"
And pupils' online profiles can affect how they are perceived in the classroom. Many spoke of the need not to appear self-centred, not to display too much of their body in photos and not to show vulnerability. Instead, they must portray a smiling, shiny version of themselves.
Dr Ringrose says this self-monitoring can be attributed to their awareness of social rules and their peer audience.
She compares teenagers' Bebo sites to their bedrooms. These website pages offer space to display photos, play music, pay tribute to favourite celebrities and tell parents to keep out. "However," Dr Ringrose adds, "bedrooms are not seen by large groups of 'friends'."
This access allows teenagers to submit each other to regular surveillance, checking who is friends with whom and what they say to each other. The sites, therefore, can be used to monitor other pupils and ensure they conform to social rules.
Several interviewees said they regularly looked at the profile pages of people they dislike as a way of reinforcing their antagonism. Online pictures and comments provide additional fodder for would-be bullies.
So, while teachers and researchers initially hoped social networking sites would allow pupils - particularly girls - to explore their identities in a safe, anonymous environment, in fact, the opposite is true.
Dr Ringrose concludes: "Rather than viewing the web as a new and much-needed forum for girls' safe self-expression, in some ways Bebo sites can be said to seriously constrain their expressions."
- Sharing the luv: consumers, identity and social-networking sites, by Jessica Ringrose and Rebekah Willett, Institute of Education
HERE COMES THE ONLINE POLICEMAN
A Home Office enforcement authority has set up a new website to teach five- to seven-year-olds about the dangers of the internet.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre already operates an online police station for older children to report threatening behaviour on the internet, but says it has received reports of inappropriate contact with children as young as five.
The new site is based on Hector's World, a New Zealand children's internet safety site featuring a friendly dolphin.
An Ofcom survey this year showed nearly two out of three five- to seven-year-olds use the internet at home, and almost as many use it at school.
Jim Gamble, the centre's chief executive, said teachers had asked for help showing younger children how to be safe online.