As the phenomenon of Facebook grows ever larger, some questions about how online social networking affects real time interactions must be asked. How does our movement away from dealing with people in person affect our ability to connect with others?
As a psychologist, I have the opportunity to view a lot of human nature first-hand. And while I’d never say that all human problems can get boiled down into a few solutions (humans beings are much too complex for that), there does seem to be one that is a running theme across many of my patients: we need community and, most of all, we need friends. In the fast-paced and relatively disconnected world in which we live, that need seems to be more pressing than we realize.
A supervisee once informed me that counseling is for people who do not have friends. While I do not believe that is true, he did have a point. For example, I am always amazed at how much good listening skills (real listening, the kind where people actually feel heard) positively affect people. I see this frequently during initial evaluations because it is one of the times in which I do the most listening. I do ask questions based on the information they tell me but, most of all, people are allowed to tell their story without much interruption or any judgment. Afterwards, a lot of them relax, smile and tell me how much they enjoyed being able to talk. Some of them even mention how long it’s been since they were able to do that. Listening to one another is a hallmark of being a good friend and many people feel the lack of that in their lives.
There are other wonderful benefits of having one or more (ideally more) good friends. They offer perspectives other than your own, they give the feeling of being understood, they keep you from being lonely and provide support when you need it and celebration when you don’t. The importance of friendships has not gone unnoticed throughout the ages. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft called friendship, “the most holy bond of society” and “the most sublime of all affections.” Friendship was so important to Chinese women that they arranged a permanent, formalized “best friendship” with another woman. Similarly, Bangwa parents in Cameroon often arranged a lifelong best friendship for their children the same way they arranged a marriage.
So, friendships are essential to a rich and healthy life, yet many people do without them. One of the obstacles to having a lot of friends is that people don’t know where to find friends. Another impediment is time. Friendship takes time and effort to grow. Thus, much of the problem rests with our fast-paced lifestyle because it limits real-time connection while celebrating virtual isolation. How many times have you seen people standing in line for something and using their cell phone instead of talking with those around them? How many people text or email instead of talking with the people with whom they need to speak? What about the people who spend hours online chatting with strangers instead of seeking out the potential friendships they might develop locally?
Americans are a people who tend to believe in the quick fix solutions, so when we couldn’t satisfy the pull of connection within the context of our busy, scattered lives, we turned to the internet for an answer. Instead of fixing the larger problem (the aforementioned busy, scattered lives), we put a band-aid on it and figured that we could have the best of both worlds: friends and convenience, connection and minimal effort. Enter Facebook.
I am not trying to pick on Facebook alone, but while it is not the only social network site, it does seem to be the biggest. Based on statistics from the company’s SEC filings earlier this year, Facebook has over 900 million active users, with over 58% of them logging in every day. I know people who spend hours on Facebook, foregoing work, sleep, and personal interaction for taking quizzes, uploading photos, playing games, reading friend updates, searching for new friends or commenting on the minutiae of their own life. Many people have developed emotional and even physical affairs from their Facebook connections. Quite a number use Facebook as their primary method of communication with people who are not coworkers. Some parents even use it as a way to catch up with their kids, even if they’re still living at home. In fact, it can be so all-consuming that I often hear the phrase “Facebook addiction” uttered within the confines of my office. So what is going on here? Why is Facebook such a phenomenon?
Well, first and foremost, I think Facebook is convenient. It’s incredibly easy to find old friends and make new ones on it. You can also access it at any time of the day or night and from wherever you have an internet connection. Thus, there is minimal effort involved in connecting with others via Facebook. This convenience is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, I really enjoy the fact that I can immediately see and hear what my brother- and sister-in-law in China are doing without having to worry about the cost of phone calls or connection issues. If they’re around the computer and I am too, we can even chat without having to formally arrange our schedules. Getting to immediately view their pictures is also a bonus.
However, the downside of convenience is that it makes it easier to avoid doing what is difficult. Given the choice, many people will decide that logging in from home to talk is preferable to going out somewhere to meet people. A number of people also will enjoy the fact that they can connect virtually and are saved the difficulties inherent in face-to-face (real time) interaction. When you talk online, you don’t have to worry about the intricacies of body language or how to appropriately deal with conflict. If you don’t like what the other person is saying, you can sign off for the moment and then pretend the conflict never happened, hide their profile or just delete them.
In each of these scenarios, the conflict is never resolved. While some would list this ability to avoid conflict as an advantage, I think it is a problem because people never learn how to deal with it. In person, it is much more difficult to interact aggressively, because you have to see the hurt on their face and hear what they have to say. In short, you have to learn how to argue constructively and deal with it. As we say, that is an advanced relational skill and one that, perhaps not coincidentally, is sorely lacking in today’s society.
Another aspect of Facebook that people enjoy is the ability to create and join communities. Through the site, you have the opportunity to meet all kinds of people you might never know and be able to share information and positive interaction. Again, while this can be a good thing, it also has its drawbacks. If people are flocking to Facebook for community, they are no longer seeking it outside of the internet, and the end result of this is that people get together in real time much less often. For example, it used to be that those interested in swapping recipes would do so at potluck dinners and other get-togethers; now they just check out Pinterest. And while missing out on some great recipes or the goings-on of friends are not national emergencies, I have to wonder what the divide between those with internet access and those without will mean for our society as a whole.
In thinking through this Facebook frenzy, I have come up with several questions that I think are worth considering. If people could not connect through an online site, what would they do? Would they find other, more emotionally intimate ways to connect? Does face-to-face social networking have more of an impact? I kind of think it might.
I am not advocating that we do away with Facebook. In and of itself, Facebook is not bad. I have a Facebook page myself. I know that it serves as a vital way for people who are geographically distant from one another to connect. It allows for the dissemination of important ideas and is a place for groups of people with unique hobbies or beliefs to find communities where they feel at home. Facebook has even helped stimulate revolutions and political activism. So I am well aware of the significant contributions Facebook offers. However, I have to wonder at the cost.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by