21st Century Aging

Living longer and better.

Facebook is Like High School

Why Our Favorite Social Media Venue Stresses Us Out

A few months ago, I wrote a piece, here, on Psychology Today, entitled, Facebook Depression. 

It actually was one of the more popular posts I have written in a while. Yet, I received a couple of comments by people who assumed that I did not know what I was talking about. It was implied that I was a Facebook novice and that I simply did not know how to reap the benefits of this great way of connecting. So, taking this criticism in stride, I did more research and came up with mixed findings. I have been on Facebook nearly everyday for the last three months.

First, the good news: I now more fully appreciate the value of Facebook and social media in general. It can be soothing to have support when something goes wrong. When I had my iPhone stolen, I posted about this and was surprised and appreciative by how empathic and supportive my friends were. And in a very basic way, it felt good to vent about what happened. Also, I recently posted something humorous about my new Roomba, the robot vacuum, and I was giddy about the number of people who liked what I wrote. 

But here’s the bad news and it is kind of harsh—Facebook can be really stressful and replicate the culture of high school.

In my recent travels on Facebook, I found that I could be excessively attached to who likes my posts. When I wrote something that no one commented on, I wondered why. Then I considered that some of my posts are political in nature and may not match the palates of some of my friends. I backed off on political posts, and then started to post stuff from my life, hence my robot vacuum. More people responded, with both likes as well as comments!

But that was not enough for me. Recently, when I had a popular post, I wondered why a particular person did not like it. Perhaps she was mad at me? Or perhaps, she just had too much going on and is busy? But she is on Facebook all of the time! Why would she not notice me?

This is how the craziness begins.

I realized that Facebook is like junior high, high school and even college. The popular kids remain popular and the rest of us are just trying be liked. Remember a precursor to Facebook? Women were judged as being “hot or not.” I feel not hot most of the time. Perhaps these popular friends of mine are gifted with their wit and can engage better than I. How do they have 40 likes when I only have 15? Maybe I am just not cool enough for Facebook. 

I also ruminate about how many friends I have. I have one friend who has 1500 Facebook contacts! Why don’t I have more? How are that many friends even possible?

I was in a bout of self-reproach. It reminded me of when I was a teenager wanting to be friends with the popular kids. And even though I am now friends with those I would consider part of the “in-crowd” (and I was in high school too) I never feel good enough, cool enough or anything enough when I am on Fabebook.

Then I realized that I am not the only one that feels this way. A friend posted, “I think I am going to take a break from Facebook.” A friend of hers commented, “I took two weeks off of Facebook and it was the best two weeks of my life.”

More recently, another friend, who I will call John, posted: “As part of my New Year’s introspection I am asking: If a friend makes a controversial post through a news story link, blanket statement, or link to a cutesy meme, does that constitute an invitation to engage in a dialogue or discussion with the intent for both parties to come away with a broader perspective and understanding of the world around them or are we just counting likes this year?”

OMG.

John may be getting to the heart of the matter. It’s true. I pop on and I like things because I feel guilty I am not involved enough. If I take a couple of days off I worry about what I missed and who might be upset with me for not paying attention. The rest of the time I am checking in to see who liked what I posted. How self-centered is that?

Again, I am reminded of high school. I tell the popular girl I like her shoes, when I may or may not think her shoes are cool. But I want her to know I am paying attention, because she may like me back. She may tell me she likes my sweater, or better yet, that she likes me.

What are we doing on Facebook? If something is so stressful (and it seems to be for many people) why do we keep doing it? The answer: Because everyone else is. We also hope that Facebook can be something more than it is. It is just like high school—we are scared of rejection so we imagine that we will make life better by feeling associated with the cool kids. But even if we end up being cool, it is kind of an empty victory. By many people's accounts, the culture of Facebook is just too stressful.

The true gateway to adulthood is being able to distinguish being loved from being admired.  

Of course, Facebook offers some real support, but a lot of what happens on the site are simply empty likes, just like John implied. I sometimes wonder, too, why there is not more real discussion, dialogue and debate. My friends are smart and thoughtful and would have great things to say. But I think I know why they hold back. People are so anxious to discuss anything controversial—in other words, to risk being judged—that they just stick to the cute links, or interesting photos or simply liking.

Can we ever get beyond high school? It’s hard when social media pulls us back in time.

 

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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