Stories surrounding Facebook have become frequent news items and have generated great interest along with controversy. Some stories focus on the drawbacks while others center on the unimaginable opportunities. By and large, the opportunities offered by Facebook far outweigh the dangers. The ubiquitous online social networking site does present danger, however, not so much because of any intrinsic attributes, but rather simply due to human nature itself.
People use Facebook for a variety of purposes, anything from professional contacts, keeping in touch with family and friends, to finding lost loves and acquaintances. A friend of mine, recently divorced, used the site to locate his high school sweetheart whom he is to wed next week. Many parents with Internet-addicted children have found my cyber addiction support groups through Facebook. When my father died, I didn’t want to talk to anybody for several weeks, but was able to let friends and family into my world by posting on Facebook every day. The site facilitates connection and networking, and helps build community.
Facebook can also facilitate and abet dysfunction. Herein lies the problem. At forty-four years of age, my friend Ken still struggles to make and keep friends. He has a variety of annoying and self-centered habits rooted mostly in growing up with an alcoholic and rage-prone father. On Facebook and MySpace, however, he became a suave, cutting-edge and easy-going individual. He got so sucked in to portraying this false persona that he started spending five to six hours every night working and re-working his online profiles. At one point, my socially awkward friend had over 1500 Facebook friends! So much of his time was spent in the cyber world, however, that his interpersonal skills stagnated further. “All I wanted,” Ken told me, “was a few more friends and maybe a girlfriend. But I just ended up throwing away two whole years of my life.” The silver lining was that Ken eventually went to therapy to begin seriously dealing with his issues. He grew weary of what he saw as wasting his life.
A British boy’s life was recently wasted, literally. One sixteen-year-old young man fatally stabbed a former friend over a “loss of face” after they traded insults on Facebook. He received a sentence of “at least 14 years.” For a lot of individuals, Facebook brings out their worst traits. It provides a forum that makes it easy to sink into insult, injury and altercation. The mascot of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team could not resist the urge to bash the team through the ease of his Facebook account. He was promptly fired. Employers routinely “crawl the web” to screen the private lives of prospective hires for any inappropriate behavior. Banks are using similar tactics to screen people for loans.
Adoptive parents and their children are also finding themselves bombarded with infringements on their privacy. With disturbingly increasing frequency, birth parents who willingly gave up children for adoption have used Facebook to reconnect with their children, who in many cases had not even reached adolescence! Eileen Fursland, a British social worker, has written a book on this potentially damaging trend. Facing up to Facebook: A Survival Guide for Adoptive Families. The lines between our personal and professional lives are becoming increasingly blurred and the ability to maintain privacy increasingly at risk.
We have in Facebook a powerful engine for connectivity, community, and cooperation. But we have to take great care to make sure that it makes our lives better and does not take the place of real time human interaction. As with most of the offerings of the cyber world, Facebook carries the potential for addiction. Parents need to model responsible use to their children as well as monitor them to make sure they are not engaging in the social networking site in ways that will ruin their futures or imperil their very lives.