Facebook: Friend or Foe?

By Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S

There seems to be two schools of thought where Facebook is concerned. One: It is the greatest invention of all time and may in fact save us all! Two: It will be responsible for the next apocalypse.

Articles are published everyday discussing the benefits of social media and how our society is more connected and informed. Flip the page however and you will read that we are growing more narcissistic and self-involved as we increase our time online. So where is the middle ground in all of this? How much time is too much time to spend online? Are these new social media platforms bringing us together or pulling us apart? What does all of this mean for you or you children (a concern I hear regularly).

What we like about Facebook

  • Connections. A very considerable amount of research has been conducted on what makes people feel happy and content. Thanks to the diligence of these researchers we know that being part of a supportive social network is something that will increase our happiness and ward off depression. When we are experiencing depressive symptoms one of the most powerful things we can do is surround ourselves with people who make us feel important and validated as unique individuals. None of the research says we have to be in the same room to experience the benefits of connectedness. For individuals who are seeking to maintain or reestablish supportive connections and friendships, Facebook is a life line in doing so.
  • Familial interaction. Now I realize that many people will say Facebook and the internet in general cut down on family time, however I believe this is slightly exaggerated. For example, my family members are scattered throughout the country. Without the use of Facebook I would never be able to see my cousin’s dance performance, and likely, wouldn’t get the photos of their Christmas tree until mid-March. Being able to keep up with what they are doing on a daily basis and discuss events that matter to them keeps us more involved and reinforces our family bond. When we do get the opportunity to visit one another in person, we have much more to discuss. I feel more a part of their life than I would otherwise.
  • Validation. Facebook allows for regular validation from those in which you care. We are given reinforcement that we are valued and understood by others (two basic human necessities). Historically, our survival has depended on being part of a group. To ensure our place in the group, we seek acceptance and reassurance that we will remain part of the group, thus increasing the likelihood of our survival. The need for validation is in our DNA.

Facebook also allows for the increased opportunity to validate others (an even more rewarding activity). Getting out of your own headspace for a while and empathizing with others is a moving and important part of achieving fulfillment. You gain perspective on your own situations and feel necessary to others (even more rewarding!)

What we don’t like about Facebook

  • Connections. Facebook stalking your friends and old acquaintances can have a rather negative effect. Many have developed what I will term the “social media mask.” Every picture is photoshop perfect, every relationship beyond reproach, and everyone’s child is an overachiever. Day after day, we look at Facebook and think how much better everyone is than we are right now. How very “together” they all appear. We are removed from seeing that everyone has pain. We overlook the fact that suffering is part of being human because we look around and think, “no one else is sad…what’s wrong with me?” In an effort to feel more connected to others we can often end up feeling more isolated and different. Worse we compare our real lives to the fake persona of everyone else (who could compete with that?!).
  • Familial Interaction. How many arguments have been started thanks to Facebook, or worse via Facebook? Recently a father in Chicago drew much attention when he posted a video of himself that ultimately ended in shooting eight bullets into his daughters laptop after he had seen her post something he felt was inappropriate on Facebook. His actions and the reasons for them, sparked a heated debate about parenting the Facebook Generation.

For many families, every afternoon is a battle over social media. Parents report that many of their nights go a little something like this: “Get off Facebook, and do your homework,” “Put down your phone, and eat dinner with us,” “Close the IPad, and go to bed.” Of course these comments are often followed by, “You don’t understand,” “This isn’t fair,” “But it’s important.” As social media sites make it easier for us to connect over distances, it may decrease our “in house” interaction. Why talk to the person next to you when you could be Facebooking dozens of people at once? Why inquire about someone’s day when you can simply read status updates?

And it’s not just a parent/child conflict. How many times have you sat next to your best friend or significant other without talking while you both surf Facebook? You can go to any restaurant and see the phenomenon first hand. People sitting at a table not talking while staring at their phones is a common sight. Spending so much time typing our thoughts rather than interacting with other people, we may find it uncomfortable to talk or touch when we are actually in the same room (or paying for nice dinners, as the case may be).

  • Validation. This is one of those cases where you can have too much of a good thing. Having the opportunity to be validated by others so regularly via Facebook, we can become lazy in areas of self validation. Many people begin to lose the ability to feel good about themselves without reinforcement from others. They need the opinions of others to tell them what to think about themselves. You can imagine how dangerous this becomes. If your self-image hinges on someone else’s approval, you are dependent on their assessment. If you aren’t validated to the level you need or worse, you receive negative responses, then you are left feeling unlovable.

Interestingly, we create a silent competition with other people on Facebook. For example, maybe you post something and receive 10 “likes.” You feel good about this until you notice that someone else received 20 “likes.” Now, you feel like less than that person. You start to wonder why you aren’t as good as the other person and why people like them more. This can go on and on. You can also compete for the “gold” in other categories as well: number of friends, number of tags, number of pokes or mentions. In the end, what may have felt good and validating now isn’t good enough when compared to the validation others are receiving.

These items are just the short list, as there are dozens of areas we could examine when thinking about the role social media plays in our lives. As you can see, much of what is good about Facebook is also bad. In most areas of our lives, this is the case. Positives and negatives can be found in anything. Understanding and recognizing the negatives, monitoring your thoughts and feelings where those negatives are concerned, and making the choice to surround yourself more readily with positive influences are all ways to minimize negative effects. Like it or not, Facebook is now a part of our culture, and for some it is a part of daily life. Learning how to get the benefits while not allowing unhealthy habits to form is an important part of living in our time. Facebook and social media sites are intriguing, especially as they relate to the influence they have on our lives. I could go on about how our perceptions are being shaped by the ever changing online world, but I really need to go update my status.