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Students give up social networks for Lent

Story Highlights

• Students abstaining from sites like Facebook for Lent
• Graduate student Kerry Graham is finding the sacrifice difficult
• Emory University student Jocelyn Chiu giving up the Internet
• Clinical psychologist: Limiting time spent can be beneficial
By Katie Hawkins
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(CNN) -- For some, it's chocolate. For others, it's coffee or cigarettes. But as this Easter approaches, some young and devout Christians are anxious to return to what they gave up for Lent: Internet sites Facebook and MySpace.

Many users describe the popular social networking sites as addictive, which is why they say giving up these 21st-century temptations is a sincere sacrifice. Members on both sites create profiles and add each other as friends. They can also share messages, photos, videos and personal blogs.

"It's been hard, especially in the beginning," said Kerry Graham, who says she gave up Facebook for Lent. Her boyfriend challenged her to do so, describing her as a "Facebook fiend."

During the first days of Lent, the 23-year-old graduate student admits she had to stop herself from typing the site's Web address nearly every time she checked her e-mail.

Graham, who was raised Catholic, is studying theology at the University of Nottingham in England. She's far from her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, and said the distance has made the sacrifice more difficult.

"If I'm missing someone, there's no real way to let them know," she said.

Catholics and others who observe Lent typically make sacrifices as a way to show religious devotion. Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter and correlates with the 40 days and 40 nights that the Bible says Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and resisting temptation.

"Some of my friends think it's silly, since people usually give up food," said 16-year-old Emily Montgomery, who says she's given up her access to MySpace. "I wanted to give up something that's really hard for me."

MySpace and Facebook are the largest social networking sites on the web. According to comScore Networks, an online measurement firm, MySpace attracted 64.4 million unique visitors in February. Facebook was the Internet's second-most visited site, with 23.6 average visits per visitor during February.

Montgomery says she spent an average of two hours a day on MySpace, logging onto the site at least four times a day. She's using Facebook as a substitute during the 40-day period.

"Not because Facebook is special -- I think it's boring," she said, explaining that the site helps her to still "feel connected."

"People try to be clever with Lent," said the Rev. Michael J. Dolan, college chaplain at Trinity College and the University of Hartford in Connecticut. "It makes sense that students are giving up these things. By giving up something, you hope to gain something."

Dolan himself has a Facebook account. He says he's friends with more than 130 other members at Trinity and 80 in the Hartford network, and has spoken with many students who have given up social networking sites or online messaging for the Lenten season.

"It's a form of spiritual awareness that allows you to reconnect with God," said Jocelyn Chiu, an Emory University sophomore and active member of her Presbyterian church. "By giving up something that used up so much of my time, I realized that I had been leaving my spiritual life behind."

Chiu gave up Facebook for Lent in 2006 and went one step further this year -- vowing to avoid the Internet altogether. She has only allowed herself to check Emory's internal e-mail for school-related messages.

"I realized how much time I was spending on the Internet," said Chiu. "I needed to make myself focus on schoolwork more."

Too much time online?

Limiting the amount of time spent on social networking sites can be beneficial, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack, director and founder of the Computer Addiction Study Center at Harvard's McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

She said students who demonstrate compulsive Internet or computer use often neglect schoolwork. In some cases, this behavior results in a lack of sleep, missed meals, poor hygiene and, in some extreme situations, seizures.

Graham said giving up Facebook has helped her distinguish between her real friends and those of "convenience." Montgomery says she now plays tennis and focuses on schoolwork more often, and Chiu has been studying, reading the Bible and spending time with friends.

"It's a nice change," said Chiu. "The human interaction is so much more personal than anything you could have on the Internet."

As Dolan observed, "People are realizing that reality involves people, not pixels."
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