As Facebook pulls off the third largest float in history, it’s hard to believe that it has been around for just eight short years. Facebook has single-handedly changed the way we communicate with our friends and family. By July a billion people will have a Facebook profile. So is there a flipside to the win-win of instant communication?
Founded by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, Facebook has gone from Harvard dorm room to the rest of teen America and onwards to hundreds of millions of people around the world. It’s inspired a revolution in the Middle East, numerous books and an Oscar-winning movie to boot. Facebook, with no apparent competition right now, is undoubtedly the top dog of the internet.
As Facebook inhabits more and more of our lives, it makes you question whether we fully understand the impact it’s having on us as individuals, but especially our growing children.
Dr Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University and author of Rewired: Understanding The iGeneration And The Way We Learn, believes that Facebook can provide a wealth of positives for young people, including ‘helping those who have communication difficulties practise how to interact with others, thus allowing them to share feelings in the safer world behind the screen and teaching people how to provide empathy to others online’.
However, Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of neuroscience and an award-winning author and broadcaster, invites us to think about the negative aspect of indirect communication via social networking. Especially for insecure teenagers, with fragile identities in the real world. ‘How much easier would it be if you only had indirect communication?’ she says. ‘No eye contact, no one can see you blush, or break out into a sweat. It’s much more sanitised, and a safer form of communication.’ She also suggests that by giving such teenagers an opportunity to hide behind an online persona, Facebook can trigger an addiction that could lead to depression.
Dr Gwenn O’Keefe, pediatrician and author of Cyberspace: Protecting And Empowering Kids In The Digital Word Of Texting, Gaming And Social Media doesn’t blame Facebook for depression. ‘You can’t blame the technology,’ she says. ‘It’s more about understanding how to use it. With Facebook we become very tuned in to what other people are doing in an isolated way and you can easily lose perspective or think people online are doing more great things than you are.’
This can become more of a problem, especially for people with low self-esteem, who may struggle to realise that, actually, people are tooting their own horn in a glorified way. They could feel less of an achiever each time they glance at their Facebook feed.
And a darker element to social networking has emerged. We know that our actions can have consequences, but this isn’t always the case in an online environment. More and more people, such as Nicola Brookes, who’s taking Facebook to court to force them to reveal the identities of her on-line abusers, have highlighted cyber bullying. As the numbers grow of those complaining of this kind of vicious harassment we could just be seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Dr O’Keefe is very careful to state that ‘cyber bullying typically occurs in the setting of a child or adult who is tangled in an off-line bully situation’. It begs the question: are these issues associated with Facebook just new labels for old problems? Either way social networks have added a new weapon to the bully’s arsenal and we have to deal with it.
We also need to know what our kids are up to even when in the supposedly safe environment of the home. Dr O’Keefe thinks communication is key. ‘You can’t wait until they’re teenagers and hope they will listen to you because you have lost them by then,’ she says. ‘They’ve already gone. As soon as your kids are old enough to communicate with you then raise them in a digitally savvy way.’ And this includes the serious side to social networking as well as the fun stuff. If you embrace technology together as a family and share the online world with your children they will quickly begin to understand how the digital world works.
All of our experts agree on one thing. ‘If we feel we don’t know what is happening in our teenagers’ lives and we’ve become too busy as adults to communicate with them we need to stop having nannies, raise our kids ourselves and have more parental involvement,’ says Dr O’Keefe. That’s not easy for busy working families, but it’s the detachment from their children that can create a distance and therefore cause anxiety for parents.
So the message is that we should try to work with technology because it’s here to stay and also try to be good role models. By embracing family values we can still hold onto the past, enjoy the present and look forward to a brilliant future with the next generation. Our kids!
Additional research by Busrah Osmanoglu