As any reader of this blog will know, I’m not the biggest fan of Facebook for both social and behavioral reasons. So, I was neither surprised nor particularly emboldened by the announcement of new psychological research confirming what many intuitively understood: that Facebook correlates to distraction, poorer academic performance (due to said distraction), and social anxiety.
Research has found that students in middle school, high school and college who checked Facebook at least once during a 15-minute study period got lower grades. Other studies have discovered that teens who use Facebook tend to have more narcissistic tendencies, while young adults who are active on the site display other psychological disorders. And daily use of media and technology — what teen doesn’t use tech each day? — makes kids more prone to anxiety and depression.
Some of these other studies have indicated that the propensity to overshare positively correlates to the amount of time a user spends on Facebook and their desires to be popular. And of course, with a lack of online anonymity, there is dramatic potential for a youngster’s youthful indiscretion or other overshare to come back to haunt them later in life. That’s not to mention the litany of potential problems for freedom (see this impressive list of examples if you’re still uncertain why anonymity or pseudonymity are essential for the protection of liberty).
And as much as I would like to use this information as ammo to discourage Facebook use, these are all more or less intuitive conclusions, and not exactly particular to the platform of Facebook. Instead, these problems are endemic to a digital society. Teens would be distracted by any available social networking platform; the fact that it happens to be Facebook is simply the result of network effects and economies of scale. If it wasn’t Facebook, it’d be something else. The only difference between Facebook or MySpace or Google+ or any other social network is the architecture in place that can give a user more finely honed controls as to where the shared information flows.
Since Facebook is not the cause of inattention, but rather one of the means and/or one of the results, banning Facebook is not an answer. Parents will win no awards for preventing their kids’ access to one of the world’s largest possible in-groups. And if they were predisposed to do so, those same kids would just get their digital jollies somewhere else. To put a slightly more cynical point on it, look at what happens when nations attempt put the brakes on digital information flows. When Egypt or any other repressive regime tried/tries to shut down a site like Facebook, the backlash is immense and the protestors still find a way to communicate because that’s how the disintermediation of communication works on the internet. Even if a country is really good at censorship (e.g., China), it still has to give people a substitute social network and they’re still committing human rights violations. Shutting down the internet entirely is certainly a way to stymie information flows, but at that point the nation has bitten off its nose to spite its “face.”
So, while Facebook may remain the visible “face” of social networking, and therefore the object of much quasi-psychological research and/or parenting advice, it doesn’t really matter that it is in fact Facebook that is causing the distraction and social anxiety. Facebook’s flat, voyeuristic architecture may increase or facilitate certain tendencies to snoop and share in the hope of information or accolades, but it’s not as though Facebook will turn a good kid bad with its social allure. Instead, Facebook provides the quickest and simplest outlet for those who might have been distracted anyway. The parenting/advice/psychology comes in by raising your kids to have healthy mental habits that do not encourage succumbing to digital drug use.
So please, share responsibly.