Within minutes of the Oskrdal family announcing that their 12-year-old son Joshua was missing, friends, teachers and neighbours began spreading the word through phone calls, texts, emails and posting his photo and information on Facebook. Suddenly, complete strangers within the community and others as far as Île-Perrot were re-posting, expressing concern and heading out to join the search while news outlets began to pick up the story. When confirmation got out that he was found and later that he was dead the Facebook posts stopped completely, until the following day when tweens and teens came home from school and began to light it up with comments ranging from shock and sadness to gossip and inappropriate remarks.
In a recent study done in January 2012 by Harris Interactive 55% of teens ages 13 to 17 years old who were polled said social media sites have made them more aware of the needs of others, an increase from 10% over the previous year. According to the summary of findings from the PEW Internet & American Life Project (How American teens navigate the new world of “digital citizenship” November 2011) 95% of all teens 12 – 17 years old are online and 80% of those are using social media sites like Facebook. The study also shows that 65% have had an experience that made them feel good about themselves and 58% say they felt closer to another person. Only 13% reported having an experience that made them feel nervous about going to school and 22% stated it ended a friendship.
It’s for reasons like these that many parents are split as to whether social media is a helpful or hurtful platform. “I’m taking down my Facebook account,” confided one St. Lazare mom “after the Joshua tragedy, and gossip and lies that were being spread…I just can’t deal with it” she said and she isn’t the only one; a handful of adults close to the Oskrdal family have reacted in the same way. Regardless of how any of us feel about it, the fact is this is how kids are connecting.
Last October, Skyler Wenger, a 14 year old boy of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, got hit by car while out ‘trick-or-treating’ with friends. Three days later and 800 km away, two Westwood Junior High School students, brothers Jacob Ouimet 8th grade, and Zachary Ouimet 7th grade who grew up in Pennsylvania, took it upon themselves to make and hand out Halloween safety fliers explaining what had happened to their friend. “On Thursday night he got hit by a car, Friday morning we got the news by text and all day we got updates on Facebook and text messages,” Jacob explained. Less than a couple of hours after Skyler was taken off life support and died, a Facebook memorial page was set up where friends and family could grieve by sharing photos and writing about their loss and learn of the nine lives he affected through organ donation. To date the R.I.P Skyler James Wenger Facebook page has 2,652 Facebook ‘Likes’.
“Facebook helped us feel close with our friends in PA and it’s kind of amazing to think about how a story about a kid who died so far away might have helped save someone in my new hometown [St. Lazare] on Halloween night,” added Zachary. “It was healing for them [to hand out the fliers]” said Hans Bulow, principle of Westwood Jr. High School, who gave the boys permission to hand them out in school.
Facebook and texts aren’t the only way teens are connecting online. “A really good friend of mine was best friends with Skyler and I felt sad and helpless that I couldn’t be there, but a few days later we hooked up on X-Box live. We played, talked and hung out,” said Jacob.
According to Socialbakers.com there are currently 17,190,240 Canadians on Facebook which represents half of the country’s population. Although only 3% of this represent teens 13-15 years old and 5% those 16-17 years old there is growing evidence that tweens and even children as young as 8 years old have Facebook accounts by lying about their age to get around Facebook’s 13 years and over rule. Zachary can attest to that. “I have friends who’s parents won’t let them have a Facebook account but they just make up a name and age and get on anyways” he said. Finding out exactly how many children use cell phones and text regularly is even trickier since these accounts are typically purchased by parents. Accurate gaming statistics are just as difficult to track down, although according to Microsoft there are over 35 million active X-box Live accounts worldwide. It seems going straight to the source and talking to teens is the only way to get a real idea of numbers. “All of my friends are on Facebook, less than half of my friends have cell phones and most of my guy friends have X-box Live or PS3 online accounts,” said Jacob.
The Hudson St-Lazare Gazette – Julie Cadieux – Wednesday February 22nd, 2012