Facebook, the social media developed by and for college students, is now used by millions of people of all ages all around the world. The universal appeal of Facebook to everyone from grandparents to politicians seems based on its ability to satisfy our needs for connection, self-promotion, and socially relevant news (not necessarily in that order).
It's true that Facebook has many virtues and when used for the simple purposes of staying in touch with friends and loved ones, can help bridge the sometimes vast physical distances of our modern, mobile, world. As I've written about in a previous blog posting, the games offered on Facebook can also be beneficial psychologically as they tickle your neurons, promoting cognitive plasticity. The friendly, non-violent games offered for free on Facebook can also help promote empathy, the feeling of wanting to help others.
Just as Facebook can keep us connected and cognitively stimulated in positive ways, though, it can also lure us into the black hole of despair, jealousy, obsession, procrastination, and worse. Misuse of Facebook can get you into serious trouble, threatening your family, job, and reputation. In extreme cases, Facebook abuse can lead to death. Fortunately, psychology offers suggestions for how to avoid the bad and benefit from the good that Facebook has to offer.
Sin #1: Facebook Jealousy
People who commit the sin of Facebook jealousy spy on their romantic partner for hours, seeking evidence of real or imagined infidelity. They torture themselves by wondering what it means when he or she adds a new friend or posts an ambiguous status update. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that you don't know what's going behind the scenes of a Facebook update. People who post what they think is innocent or obviously fake information are actually not aware that the friends in their network don't necessarily know the facts because they're not there to see what's going on. It's this ambiguity of context that sows the seeds of many subsequent misunderstandings.
What's more, if you're naturally a bit on the untrusting side, you may be particularly prone to Facebook jealousy. A team of Canadian researchers reported in their study of over 300 college undergraduates that people who scored high on the trait of jealousy were far more likely to fall prey to Facebook Sin #1.
Facebook jealousy can also extend to ex-spouses and former girlfriends or boyfriends, sometimes going on for years after the breakup. One survey of "Your Tango" website users reported the incidence of ex-partner stalking to be as high as 50%. This is probably an exaggeration given the self-selected nature of the sample, all of whom are on a relationships website. In any case, it happens, and if it happens to you, then you've just committed Facebook Sin #1.
Cure: It may be painful, but if you're making yourself miserable over an ex, you have to force yourself to hide this person's comments or unfriend them altogether if you haven't already. In the case of current partners, remind yourself that when viewing other people's Facebook statuses, there's often a context that you're not aware of at the moment. Don't jump to conclusions or you'll create real distance in your relationship.
Sin #2: Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
A variant of Facebook jealousy occurs when you realize that your friends are currently somewhere that you are not. In this syndrome, known as "Fear of Missing Out," your insecurities about not being popular are painfully brought to the surface. In Facebook Sin #2, you think that your friends don't care about you anymore because they haven't invited you to their party. Now you're stuck imagining the good times they're having, or worse, you can actually see what they're doing in their uploaded photos or videos. Perhaps you resort to posting a fake update, so now you're not only a loser but a lying loser. Not good for your self-esteem.
Cure: Although the social events that you're not attending may seem to be more fun than what you're doing now, recognize that if the event was so spectacular the people writing about them wouldn't have the time or interest to be updating their Facebook status.
Sin #3: Facebook One-Upsmanship
Your attempt to make your friends feel that they're the ones missing out, not you, is part of a larger phenomonen which we can call Facebook "impression management." Why is it, you wonder, that your Facebook buddies can always come up with snappier updates than you can? Why do they get so many "likes," and you get none? Instead of using your own updates to provide your friends with news, you now are on the hunt for the perfect witticism. The Facebook One-Upsmanship game is on.
Cure: Don't get drawn into the competition. Not everyone can be a Facebook Shakespeare. Take pleasure in knowing that you have such clever friends and enjoy the laughs they provide.
Sin #4: Too Much Information (TMI)
In everyday conversation, you know how tedious or perhaps frightening it is when a person's response to your casual and rhetorical question "How are you?" produces a litany of detailed and overly revealing complaints about life. If the person is a good friend, this might actually be appropriate, at least as long as it happens when this person is having a truly bad day. But if the person is a stranger or a casual acquaintance, all of these gory revelations may make you uncomfortable. The same thing can happen on Facebook but in the online world, the problem is magnified by the fact that people communicate through theseeming anonymity of Facebook.Twitter, a related social media tool, seems to present less of a danger of TMI because there's potentially less damage you can do in 140 characters.
Perhaps the worst examples of Sin #4 occur when two people decide to have a personal conversation through wall postings (which can be viewed by all) instead of through friend-to-friend messages. They cover everyone's wall with details about their sex lives, medical conditions, or problems with their boss. It's not very interesting, and potentially highly embarrassing for everyone involved.
In one almost unbelievable situation, a female juror communicated the details of a sexual abuse case and asked for opinions from her friends while the case was in progress. You may have your own horror stories to share of friends who told the world about what they were drinking, smoking, or inhaling, all illustrated with embarrassing, if not indecent, photos.
Cure: Imagine that your Facebook updates were to be reported in the local paper. Would you really want this information publicly accessible? Later I'll talk about avoiding the sin of Facebook regret, so if this applies to you, read on.
Sin #5: Oversharing Status Updates
Related to the sin of TMI is the sin of oversharing. It's not what you say about yourself but the fact that you say it. "Checked into Starbucks" is perhaps my favorite example of Sin #5. The location feature of Facebook can be fun to use if you're actually going someplace interesting ("such-and-such has just checked into the Taj Mahal"). Most of the time, however, the check-in feature is just plain annoying.
Oversharing also occurs in the games feature of Facebook. You're commiting the over-sharing sin everytime you let the world know your latest Farmville acquisition or Mafia Wars triumph. This says to others that you really have nothing better to do than sit around playing video games, and can possibly lead to Sin #6 or #7.
Cure: Remember that less can be more. Your updates will pack more punch if they reflect interesting activities and not just normal everyday routines. If you feel absolutely driven to posting your online game accomplishments, wait untill they are truly remarkable (and don't post them during work hours).
Sin #6: Facebook regret
You've posted your status update and immediately wish you hadn't. Perhaps you've said something truly inane, unfunny, or spiteful. All you can do is hope that this happened at a time when none of your friends were online. Just hit that little "x" and you're all set. However, if you didn't catch the error, you may be disheartened to see that you inadvertently hurt someone else's feelings. A comment pops up from a friend who is experiencing FOMO because she wasn't invited to the party that you are reporting on in your update. In other cases, the regret may come later when you realize that you missed out on a job offer because an inappropriate post was lurking somewhere in your posting history. Even a seemingly innocent admission of laziness, procrastination, or excuse-making can lead a future employer to have second thoughts about the quality of your work ethic.
Similarly, your grand accomplishments on Farmville inform your boss, your teacher, or others believing that you are or should be at work that you're not. Littering your postings with evidence of Facebook stalking of your exes can also douse your chances of attracting future romantic partners.
Cure: If your update has offended a friend, send that person a private message with a heartfelt apology. In general, the best way to avoid Facebook regret is not to commit oversharing or TMI in the first place. And remember, don't drink and post on Facebook at the same time.
Sin #7: Actual and dangerous neglect or harm
There are at least two reported cases of the deadliest sin of Facebook: Neglect or abuse of a child. In one case, a Florida woman shook her 3-month old son to death after he interrupted her while playing "Farmville." Not only did she shake him, but before she actually killed him, she lit a cigarette to calm her nerves.More recently, a Colorado mother left her infant son in the bathtub while she went into the other room to update her Facebook status and play a game of "Café World." Driving while on Facebook is another version of this deadly sin.
Other than these horrendous versions of the Sin #7, Facebook obsession due to any of the above scenarios (FOMO, TMI, jealousy) can cause you to forget about the tasks you need to do, on or off the computer. The availability of mobile Facebook apps can compound the situation. You can easily be lured into your virtual world instead of paying attention to what's going on in your real world.
Another category of neglect or harm comes from sharing information about your family. Cases of identity theft are now being reported that are associated with revealing names and ages of family members, particularly children.
Cure: Facebook addiction that reaches these extremes requires serious intervention. If you're putting others at risk, you need to set limits to your Facebook use. To learn more about the risks associated with identity theft, check out this advice that Facebook provides its users regarding what you reveal about your children.
You can continue to take advantage of Facebook's many benefits in allowing us to connect to others across the miles and keep in touch with friends and family. By avoiding or curing yourself of these seven Facebook sins, you can fulfill your desire to remain connected to your social world in a psychologically healthy way.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011
Muise, A., Christofedes, E., & Desmaris, S. (2009). More information than you ever wanted: Does Facebook bring out the green-eyed monster of jealousy? Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 12, 441-444.