An increasingly clear case can be made for the deleterious effects of Facebook on young people. As every parent of a teen can attest, the attainment of adolescence and coming of age is a difficult experience for the young teen, who must face the rigorous pressures of seeking peer approval even as they seek to define their own identity. The challenges of coming of age, making friends, and learning to manage one’s responsibilities and duties are indeed considerable, and the use of Facebook and other social networking sites carries many pitfalls that can exacerbate some of the most deleterious behaviors and responses.
To demonstrate this, there are a number of reports that indicate increasing concern about a phenomenon known as ‘Facebook depression’ (ABC News). Bullying, intimidation and degradation all occur amongst young people in real life, and now Facebook provides the perfect venue for these behaviors to be carried forward in a way that raises the stakes (ABC News). As anyone who uses social media can attest, one must be very careful with what one posts online: “Remarks made on Facebook, Twitter, and other popular social networking sites have led to the loss of jobs, expulsion from school, dismissal from school programs, and even capture of criminals” (McCoy 204). In other words: if you don’t want the world to see it, don’t post it online. If many adults fall into these traps, how much more will teens do the same, posting injudicious content that may subject them to ridicule, or using Facebook and other social media networking sites to encourage or exhibit behaviors that are antisocial or even criminal?
This is not simply a hypothetical scenario. In fact, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that young people are using Facebook and other social media networking sites in ways that are extremely alarming and profoundly unsafe. Easily the most worrisome finding was that over 10% admitted to having “posted a nude or seminude picture of themselves or others online” (Tucker). Besides the very considerable concern that nude pictures of minors are felonious, there is also the fact that posting such salacious material will very likely have serious real-world repercussions. The tragic case of Amanda Todd springs to mind as an example of an extreme case of this sort of thing, though it is an extreme case that should be taken as a warning: if it happened once, it can happen again, and in any case the tremendously negative social repercussions faced by young people who find themselves the target of intimidation and harassment campaigns for having posted such material are reason enough to discourage young people from using social media in those ways.
Of course, bullying and intimidation are another concern, both in real life and online. But where teachers, gym coaches and parents may be on hand in real life to intervene, online it is a different story: a foolish comment or rash posting of a picture may be immortalized, copied by other users and then disseminated. One cautionary example, well-known to anyone active on social media, is the case of Scumbag Steve, a young man whose picture, posted on MySpace, was turned into the subject of an online ‘meme’. Or young people may be harassed online for reasons that have nothing to do with a poor decision on their part at all: as anyone who has been to high school or even middle school knows, young people can be very ruthless with each other in the pursuit of popularity, and when authority figures are not on hand to regulate behavior and ensure that abuse is stopped, young people are given free rein.
What other negative consequences might young people face for poor decisions made about what to post online? Simple: online lives on Facebook and other sites are like living in a house with see-through walls. Anything one does on these sites is subject to the perusal of Facebook friends at the least. A young person might post something on their Facebook profile that garners them no ill repercussions from friends, and even from parents and teachers—something silly, let us say, and perhaps a bit immature, but nothing criminal or indecent. Still, that content might influence the perceptions of potential employers, admissions officers at colleges, and college roommates in ways that might have unfortunate repercussions for the young person (Tucker).
One example of incredibly poor judgment by young people regarding what to post online comes from a Cincinnati case where three teens created a Facebook page that identified one of their teachers by name and falsely labeled him a member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). It was intended as a ‘parody’, but this tasteless exercise of bad judgment and character defamation landed the boys with a 90-day school suspension. The case went to court, with the students and their parents challenging the severity of the sentence, particularly in light of the fact that each of the three boys wrote an apology to the teacher, but this is not the cardinal point: the cardinal point is that young people can exercise stunningly bad judgment about what to post online, and as in this case, some of those terrible decisions can include or involve behavior that is harmful to other people.
What about beliefs and opinions? Political and religious beliefs, for example, are often very tightly-held, and as anyone who uses social media networking sites can attest, many people like to express their convictions on these sites. Irrespective of my convictions, if I use my Facebook or other social media networking profile as a pulpit for them, I am subjecting myself to the scrutiny and possible censure of others who may not share my convictions. Now, for some people this is acceptable, and they are willing to take the risks—but are teens?
If I broadcast my convictions about political and/or religious matters on Facebook, and then apply for a job, will my potential employer try to find me on Facebook? In this day and age the only correct answer is for me to assume that they will. If I am fortunate, the employer will either share my convictions to the point that they will look upon my Facebook activities favorably, or else they will not care either way—but am I not taking a risk? This is true for anyone, but with young people the additional concern is that they often have trouble thinking about long-term consequences—and for that matter, so do many adults. While young people can be very bright, they are also at a time of their lives when many of them are still developing their convictions: thus, it is not unreasonable to suppose that many of them will be more at risk even than most adults of using Facebook and other sites to broadcast their beliefs in ways that might potentially come back to haunt them.
In other words, and simply put: there are too many unknowns surrounding anything even mildly risqué or provocative posted online: how will friends/parents/teachers/employers/ significant others see said content, and how open for interpretation will it be? If I tell a slightly ‘dirty’ joke on my Facebook profile and most of my friends laugh it may seem okay, but will my boss feel the same way if they see the joke? If I express my support for a certain political candidate and denounce that candidate’s opponent, do I not run the risk of reducing my chances of employment with someone who supports that other candidate? Bias does not have to be entirely conscious: someone who is vetting my social networking profiles in order to make a hiring or college admission decision may tell themselves that they did not reject me because of my ardent and passionate support for a political or religious cause which embodies the exact opposite of their own convictions, but that might, nonetheless, be the case. Clearly a great deal of discretion is needed if one is to post online and be responsible, and as seen, plenty of adults are ill-prepared and even incapable of understanding this. Accordingly it should surprise exactly no one that many teens have difficulty with the concept as well. There is another problem with the use of Facebook and other social networking sites: they sap productivity. Facebook can become addictive, successfully competing for the user’s time with actual, real-world events. In other words, the online life on these social media networking sites can start to take over from the real-world one (Harris). For many young people in particular, Facebook is not ‘just’ a ‘website’ that they go and surf, as in the days of the early internet. Parents need to understand this: Facebook is not Web 1.0, a collection of sites which one browses; instead, it is Web 2.0, a fully interactive online site that doubles as a kind of second life. As such, it is very easy for young people to become absorbed in their online lives: they can converse with their friends, keep track of things that are new and hip and trendy, who is dating whom, and so on. All of this, from behind a computer.
Simply put, this is easily the greatest problem with Facebook: time spent on Facebook could be more productively used elsewhere and in other ways, cultivating the salutary virtues of body and mind. Young people could be exercising, spending time with friends in real life, playing sports, or reading books to expand their knowledge. Any one of these activities, and others besides, would be a vastly more productive investment of time than Facebook or any other social networking site.
In today’s increasingly fast-paced and networked society, young people arguably face more challenges than ever: they must learn to be responsible and productive members of society even as they come of age, and they must do so in an era when any- and everything they say online can be immortalized and disseminated to the eyeballs of an essentially unlimited number of people. It is a brave new world of digital information technology with which parents are still struggling to keep up. Facebook and other social networking sites pose many perils to young people: they are filled with pitfalls that threaten the privacy and reputations of young people. Given that plenty of adults act in irresponsible ways on these sites, it is the more important that parents instill discipline and impose standards, ensuring that their teens are judicious.