Social networks allow users to interact with their friends on an individual level, within specific groups, and in a public manner. Currently the most poplar social network is Facebook. There is a minimum age requirement of 13, but this is frequently violated and many children open their own Facebook pages at a much earlier age. I recently turned to Facebook to leave a birthday message for a 14-year-old boy, only to find that, according to the date of birth on his profile page, he was now 33. It seems Facebook use has become such an accepted and popular hobby that parents feel their child will be a social outcast if they are not part of the Facebook scene. Children generally believe that Facebook is a protected environment, where almost all potential advantages of the Internet exist. There, they enjoy their own private territory, over which they have total control, without interference from adults, particularly their parents. Moreover, they feel that they can control exactly how and what the world learns about them, for example they can choose which flattering photographs to upload, and which pieces of personal news to share. Running their social network activity is fast and easy, and they feel connected to their friends whenever and wherever they choose. It offers a great feeling of empowerment.

                                                      ***

                                Chatbox: Tommy, the wonder child

Tommy is 11 years old and already has 500 friends on Facebook. However, to be honest, he has actually met only 40 or so face to face, and to be even more honest, aside from Facebook, he is not really in contact with them at all, because, after all, who needs to meet people in person when you have Facebook? Tommy lives with his mother and sister, but hardly sees them. His mother is involved in her work as a lawyer, while his sister is constantly busy with her friends. The family members do keep in touch with one another: they send each other WhatsApp messages and it works out pretty well. In his face-to-face social interactions Tommy is very shy, easily embarrassed, and prone to stuttering. On Facebook, however, he is very eloquent, doesn’t stutter and never gets confused or embarrassed. He spends around five hours a day on Facebook. One hour at least is dedicated to updating his profile. He once spent over two hours editing his profile photograph until he was happy with the result. When he finally uploaded it, it garnered 400 likes, so his extra effort was worth it.

On a previous occasion, everything went wrong. Tommy uploaded a post, but received no likes or shares … nothing at all. He hinted to some people to come forward and help him out, but the situation didn’t change dramatically, so Tommy decided to remove the post. It was, he felt, the worst thing that could happen to anyone. In another more successful post, Tommy told his friends all about the nervous breakdown his sister had suffered following their parents’ divorce. He revealed everything: the shouting, the crying, the weeks she spent in a psychiatric hospital. His sister was devastated, but that didn’t really matter because he had received so many shares and likes. He was the king of Facebook for three blissful days.

Now, when he posts on Facebook, he feels an increasing degree of tension, particularly as he waits for responses. Will his friends feel excited? Will they like it? He feels that his entire self-worth is on the line. And then, when the first likes and shares begin to trickle in, he feels suddenly so alive and everything seems good, in fact amazing.

Somewhere, deep inside, Tommy knows that there are some people on Facebook who are more poplar than him. He monitors some of them: they are better-looking than him, and their lives seem much more exciting than his. Sometimes this depresses him. A month ago he received a friend request from someone who looked nerdy, whom he did not recognize, and who had fewer than 200 friends. Naturally, Tommy did not approve him, as he was not about to put his own social standing at risk. When he looks at his friends’ pictures, he sometimes wonders what they really look like. Would he recognize them if he met them in the street? He knows why this issue troubles him: he puts a lot of work into editing his images with Photoshop to make sure that he looks fantastic and he wonders if his friends on Facebook would actually recognize him if they met face to face.

Tonight, Tommy is going to meet one of his online friends: a boy called Jon. This will be their first face-to-face encounter, although Tommy knows that they have a lot in common, including their passion for collecting Star Wars memorabilia; in fact, they met through a site dedicated to this interest. Jon has invited Tommy to his home to see his collection. It is in a part of town that Tommy doesn’t know well, and he has decided not to tell any of his friends and family—online or offline—about this meeting, so that it will be all the more exciting when he puts up a post about it later on. He is sure that he is going to have a great time and the whole thing is making him feel very grown-up.

                                                             ***

Many young people spend a lot of time on Facebook and so it is not surprising that what they encounter there determines much of their self-image and self-esteem (Valkenburg, Peter, & Schouten, 2006). Anyone who puts up any content on Facebook will be anxious to know what the world thinks of it (and by extension, of him or her). Strategies have been developed, particularly among young people, to garner positive feedback (Ong et al., 2011). These include tactics such as adding catchy photos, keeping messages short, ending posts with a question, posting message at a time when friends are usually online, and “hinting” to friends to give positive feedback. If the post does not receive what its “sponsor” defines as enough likes and shares, they may well remove it. Another very interesting component of the Facebook experience is the feeling that you are the center of the world. You write something and immediately get feedback in the form of “Wow,” “Great,” or “You’re the king!” This feeling returns people to their earliest childhood, in fact to babyhood, when they believed that the entire world revolved around them. On Facebook, when young people write about their personal experiences, the “world” reacts immediately. This degree of focus on the self by young people is worrisome, as it is very likely to encourage narcissism (Mehdizadeh, 2010).

For most Facebook users, an integral part of the experience is the viewing of other people’s profiles, comparing and contrasting them with their own. This activity may well lead to their experiencing a decline in their sense of satisfaction with life (Krasnova et al). Young people frequently forget or do not even realize that their friends are also busy with their own PR activities and thus the image they present is not a true reflection of their life or degree of happiness.

On Facebook nearly everything translates into numbers (in the form of likes, comments, friends, and so on), which is likely to cause young people, especially those who suffer from social difficulties, to create distorted perceptions of friendship. They may fail to understand the quality of true friendship and the importance of investing in it, and instead opt for a quantitative definition of such, where friends are collected like points.

See more on this issue in my new book, Internet Psychology: The Basics

References

Amichai-Hamburger, Y. (2017). Internet Psychology: The Basics. New York: Routledge

Krasnova, H., Wenninger, H., Widjaja, T., & Buxmann, P. (2013). Envy on Facebook: A hidden threat to users’ life satisfaction? In 11th International conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik (pp. 1–16).

Ong, E. Y. L., Ang, R. P., Ho, J. C. M., Lim, J. C. Y., Goh, D. H., Lee, C. S., et al. (2011). Narcissism, extraversion, and adolescents’ self-presentation on Facebook. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 180–185.

Mehdizaden, S. (2010). Self-Presentation 2.0: Narcissism and Self-Esteem on Facebook. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 357-364

Valkenburg, P. M., Peter, J., & Schouten, A. P. (2006). Friend networking sites and their relationship to adolescents' well being and social self-esteem. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 9, 584−590.

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