The internet is a great enabler but it is also insidiously dehumanizing and has a propensity to undermine a societal commitment to upholding human rights.

Over the weekend, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph —  argued that social networking sites like Facebook lead to young people “commoditising” friendship and that this in turn is causing anxiety and suicide.

“Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships. They throw themselves into a friendship or network of friendships, then it collapses and they’re desolate,” Archbishop Nichols argues.

It is hard not disagree with this assessment when we are faced with the reality of an increasing number of teenagers who are taking their lives after their so called “friends” use Facebook to belittle and ridicule them.

Last week Megan Gillan, a student from Cheshire in the UK, took an overdose of pills after reading comments on Bebo, a site that collates data from Facebook and other social networking sites, about her appearance and clothes. This is a real problem with Facebook and other sites. It can destroy the self esteem of already vulnerable people — “look, I have 400 ‘friends’, you only have 10, you’re a loser.”

People do boast about how many “friends” they have and even the media is now taking to looking at the Facebook friends of people they are writing about. Take this absurd paragraph from The Age’s Gabriella Coslovich on May 23 in a piece on The Monthly’s new editor.

The Monthly magazine has a new editor — a 23-year-old Melbourne man and recent university graduate whose 274 Facebook friends include the popular Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton,” Coslovich wrote, presumably without her tongue in her cheek.

But as Archbishop Nichols says “friendship is not a commodity, friendship is something that is hard work and enduring when it’s right.” The notion that you can become a “friend” simply at the click of a mouse is absurd as Bill Gates found out when he acquired 10,000 such ‘friends’ before rightly pulling the plug in Facebook earlier this year.

The importance of real life friends is not something that can be emphasized too much and the danger is that a combination of electronic communication in all its forms — whether it be Facebook, Twitter, or whatever is just around the corner — will make it more difficult for future generations to care for each other in real life. If Facebook and other electronic social interaction sites are marketed to children under 10 — and by the way it is staggeringly easy for an 8 or 9-year-old to register on Facebook by posing as a 16-year-old — then this should be cause for concern in our democracy.

This is because a society in which human rights are taken seriously by all begins with the way it educates its young and guides them. Teaching children the importance of physical friendship means developing their capacity for sympathy, empathy and tolerance of others. This is not something that can be gained from Twittering or having a Facebook page.