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Clickable Friendships

I’ve been bothered by one part of the heartwarming story of the child who didn’t want a birthday party because he said he had no friends and discovered — according to People magazine — that he actually had 2 million. (“No Friends for Lonely Fifth-Grader? Turns Out He Has 2 Million.“)  I know — a very opportune story in light of all my recent party posts.

His mother brought Colin’s plight online, and people left encouraging words and sentiments of friendship on an online Facebook page.  Over 2 million people have “liked” the page, and the boy is overwhelmed by all the good cheers.

And that is lovely.  That is a good thing.  That is the sort of story that makes you smile.

But those aren’t friends.

Friendship is more than hitting a “like” button — and that is true when it comes to high school students playing online with their face-to-face friends and it’s true when it comes to a little boy like Colin.  People can say friendly things on a Facebook wall, but that does not make those people friends.  Nor does Colin ever get a chance to practice being a good friend to other people.  Friendship flows in two directions.

I fear that every day we are moving deeper into believing that hitting “like” really connotes friendship.  That Facebook calling a connection “friends” makes two people connecting actually friends.  But when you step back from the moment and let the likes die down, Colin is still where he started except perhaps with the knowledge of support in his back pocket.  For a shy, unsure child, maybe having that reassurance would be enough to push that child out of their comfort zone and reaching out to others.  But Colin’s problems go beyond low self-esteem.  His mother states: “He eats lunch alone in the office every day because no one will let him sit with them, and rather than force someone to be unhappy with his presence, he sits alone.”

There is a lot missing from this story.  Why does the school condone this?  From the wording in that statement, it sounds as if the school permits the other children to be terrible to this child.  I hope the school has put out an effort to help this child learn socialization skills.  What does the school’s counselor think of this situation?  The mother also doesn’t state what she has done to help her child build and maintain friendships.  Does she set up playdates?  Are all of her attempts to help her child rejected?  Was this the first time the topic of a party has been broached?  Yes, we all want to keep returning to those 2 million clicks, but I can’t help but think about all the holes in this story.  None of the articles I’ve read seem to want to focus on those holes, pretending that the act of Facebook likes is the Great and Powerful Oz, and pay no attention to that little boy behind the curtain.

Colin didn’t need 2 million people clicking a button.  What he needs are a bunch of compassionate adults who happen to have compassionate kids who can give this child a chance.  This family needs their son to meet other kids who will accept him as he is, and play with him.  They do not need to become best friends, close confidantes that share all their secrets as they skip off into the sunset.  But yes, every kid needs people they can turn to on the playground and join in their game.  Kids need constant practice at socialization in order to master socialization skills such as team work and listening and compassion and discussion.

This really feels like the social media equivalent of that Jesus parable of “teach a man to fish” except it’s even less helpful.  Hitting “like” doesn’t give this kid the fish to have a satisfying meal, and it certainly doesn’t teach him how to reel in the kids on the playground and make a friend.

I sort of wish that there had been fewer likes and more kids, in his town, who stepped forward and said, “let’s have a playdate.”  His mother states, “I have seen him in this last month blossom because he knows he has 2.1 million friends and that is something that nobody else has. His self-confidence has grown.”  Now that he has that self-confidence, I wish someone would step forward to make a real friendship.  Because he hasn’t 2.1 million friends.  He doesn’t even have one friend from this if no one connects with him in starting a conversation.  What he has is a lot of finger clicks by a lot of people who know this is a problem and have no clue how to solve it.  Or they know what actually needs to get done to solve it, but they choose not to step forward and do something beyond clicking “like.”

That inaction is a very real problem for a lot of kids: Colin isn’t the only child who has no friends.

My hope is that the story continues, and we hear about what his school has done to help foster relationships with other kids.  That we hear about a local group for kids with special needs that invites Colin to join a structured social group that takes in mind his special needs.  For instance, we have a movie-going group in town that is a social group for autistic kids.  I’d love to hear that something like that exists in his neck of the woods, and that group invites the family to join them for their next outing.  Moreover, I want to hear about local parents who threw a party for Colin, and their kids who stepped forward to say, “what you thought wasn’t actually true.”  Because that’s the missing piece of this story.  “Likes” from adults (and they must be over Colin’s age since he is about 10, and you can’t be on Facebook until you are 13 or older) are well and good, as are visits from hockey teams.  It’s sweet.  It’s clicky.  It makes us feel good.

But it doesn’t actually change anything in the long run for Colin.

This is not to dismiss online friendships.  Some of my closest friendships started online.  A few of them continue to this day via a multitude of mediums such as email and phone calls, never getting to move into the face-to-face realm due to distance.  If Colin gained a few online friendships from this page, I’d consider it a win too.

But I’m not getting that sense.  And perhaps that’s just the cynic in me who spends a lot of time volunteering with kids and seeing how much they need friends.  How many kids perceive themselves to be on the outskirts.  And how that affects their behaviour when they go through their school day feeling as if no one has their back.  I want Colin to get a very real, living and breathing friend.  Not 2.1 million of them because no, friendship is not about collecting likes.  I want Colin to get two of three kids who would want to come to a birthday party next year, or maybe hang out and play some video games, or at the very least, play some pick-up basketball at the park.

That I would consider a very sweet ending to this story.


1 TasIVFer { 03.25.14 at 7:40 am }

This article is about speech delay, however this post reminded me of it. We need to learn to use technology appropriately in our live, with balance and – dare I say it? – maturity. Sorry short comment as from my phone in bed. :-/ http://theconversation.com/were-not-talking-to-our-kids-are-we-causing-speech-delay-23585

2 Pepper { 03.25.14 at 7:43 am }

Yes. Although I know there is a heartwarming side to this story, really it just made me sad. And I had similar thoughts – why aren’t there families out there who can step up and be friendly in person? What is happening in this school? Why??

3 Delenn { 03.25.14 at 9:16 am }

I have been following this story closely because Collin seems to have Asperger like issues (as my son does) and Collin lives near my home town of Kalamazoo, MI. Recently, the mother posted that they have made the hard decision to home school…which makes me think you are right on the button when it comes to the real connections that NEED to be made and have not been made to date. I know from my own experiences with my son, that it is very hard to foster any meaningful relationships (at the moment, I believe my son has maybe 2-3 “real” friends). This is one of the reasons why I did not really encourage on-line sights for him (he doesn’t do Facebook–his choice, actually). I do hope that Collin makes a connection or two out of this.

4 chickenpig { 03.25.14 at 9:59 am }

This is a world that is difficult to understand unless you live in it. It is quite possible that Collin really wanted to collect FB friends because it feels real to him. Collections are huge, and they are a touchstone that gives comfort and confidence when ppl do not. We want connections for our autistic children because we feel they are important, but if you talk to autistic adults you learn that pushing them into social situations isn’t necessary for them, nor appreciated. My son is very well liked and approached by children for play dates, but he is wary of them and has yet to agree to a single playdate, even with his closest friend. At their birthday party his twin played with his guests, but he didn’t play with his, although he was happy they came. Right now his grandmother is his most favorite person, followed closely by his twin…. and then somewhere after that the rest of his family and the world. Friendship is very abstract for someone who still doesn’t understand the most basic social niceties. He is very lucky that he is small and cute and that kids seem to want to protect him and understand him. Home schooling neither helps socially challenged kids, nor their peers who learn a tremendous amount just by having them in their class. But putting them in groups or arranging play dates they don’t want, or need, isn’t helpful either. My son goes to school everyday with his collection of ceiling fan photos in a binder, his bouncy balls in a box, and his key chains attached to his backpack. If a collection of FB friends allows Collin to navigate his world a little easier, that is a very good thing… and it might be all he really wants or needs for now.

5 chickenpig { 03.25.14 at 10:04 am }

Ps Groups for autistic kids like your movie club aren’t for the kids, they are for the parents, so they can see a movie without having to leave early or deal with nasty looks from other adults.

6 Sadia { 03.25.14 at 10:11 am }

I agree with you. Adults are responsible to foster whatever changes are needed for Colin to make a connection … whether that’s online or in person, and “likes” aren’t connections. My daughters’ teachers identified 4 kids in the class who are designated “ambassadors.” They are responsible for making new students feel welcome, but I (and the other parents, including the classroom teacher) have encouraged these ambassadors to reach out to the lonely children in their class.

Reminds me of this post: http://momastery.com/blog/2014/01/30/share-schools/

7 Delenn { 03.25.14 at 10:49 am }

I think I end up trying to just put my son in situations where he has the opportunity to interact socially (whether he does so is up to him). To that end, I think the internet can be a help to find people of similar interests — but it needs to be a means to an end, a place to start and then plan to meet in the real world.

8 bionicbrooklynite { 03.25.14 at 11:57 am }

I agree with you here.

But for the record, the “teach a man to fish” thing isn’t a Jesus parable, though there are a lot of those that are about fish. Jesus was more into feeding people than telling them about bootstraps. See “loaves and the fishes,” for instance, and my favorite verse in the whole Bible, “come and eat breakfast.” (John 21:12)

9 deathstar { 03.25.14 at 12:15 pm }

Very interesting discussion here. I learned something, thanks Chickenpig. I read the article and some of the following comments. Empathy, understanding, patience, tolerance, maturity, all qualities that are not really part of the education curriculum. Or demonstrated in the comments from adults.

10 a { 03.25.14 at 1:20 pm }

A larger question for me is…if the mom knows the kid spends his time separated from his peer group, why would she torture him with the suggestion of a birthday party? But I’m a skeptic, so I wonder about these things.

Anyway, I thought I saw (one of the times I saw that passed around) an offer of a play date from someone from the area. Of course, my memory is faulty, and it may have been “if I lived in the area, I would schedule a play date.” Then, I just read an article from the Atlantic (I think) about kids needing to play independently and dangerously, so maybe Colin’s mom should just kick him out the door next Saturday morning and tell him to go out and find some other kids to play with. Damn, this parenting thing is hard work!

11 Hope { 03.25.14 at 4:57 pm }

Mixed feelings here. On one hand, this story reminds me a little of those “extreme home makeover” TV shows. People who need the stability of a functional home get their lives turned upside down as a huge crew quickly builds a new house, which may or may not really fit into their neighborhood. Then everyone gets to cheer at the big reveal. There, poverty SOLVED. (I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just that it’s bound to feel a bit overwhelming, and it’s not a full solution.)

That said, I’d be surprised if Colin doesn’t get some playdates out of all this attention. Along with all the random “likes,” he’s also gotten some pretty personal notes (I saw them on his Facebook page) from people on the autism spectrum, reassuring him that life can get much better. I really hope that some lasting good comes from it.

It would be great to hear more about the “holes” in this story, and its outcome, but I’m less hopeful about these things happening.

12 Ellen K. { 03.26.14 at 9:48 am }

Agreed. And a Slate writer, a parent of a boy with Asperger’s, had reservations about this social media event:


13 KeAnne { 03.26.14 at 12:24 pm }

@Ellen, I was just getting ready to post that same Slate link! While it’s great schools are focusing on character education, I’m not sure how meaningful it is. Something like friend ambassadors or an adult trying to connect friendless students would be a real example of character education and hopefully reducing bullying. I think the project was a sweet idea and can raise awareness that some kids don’t have friends, but let’s head offline to do something tangible and meaningful about it.

14 Seriously?! { 03.26.14 at 8:04 pm }

A good read, as usual. I have this exact conversation with my 12/13 year old students…OFTEN. Just because you pass them in the hall, it doesn’t make them your ‘friend’. As a result of the increase in online ‘bullying/ganging up on/teasing’ of others, we have repeated conversations about compassion and friendship…in grade 7!!!!!!!!! There are holes to this (Colin’s) story indeed. I’ve noticed a HUGE difference in what teens think ‘friendship’ looks like over the years. Very disappointing. Social media definitely has its flaws…our kids are lacking communication skills, empathy and problem solving techniques. This work must start at home. We can only reinforce so much at school and I sure as hell question the culture of the school that Cole was/is in.

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