I gave up Face.book for Lent. I did the same last year, but this time around, I’ve been much more reflective about what this Lenten sacrifice means: why I needed it, what effect it had on my life, and what I’m called to do about it going forward. It’s been a refreshing, freeing break (although not without its annoyances and moments of temptation), and I find myself wondering these days about when and how I should go back after Easter.
Over breakfast the other morning, I heard a snippet on NPR about the American Academy of Pediatrics warning teens and parents that teenagers’ use of social networking sites should be closely monitored because recent studies show that it aggravates anxiety and depression among teens. I was reminded of a piece from Slate magazine that I’ve been meaning to blog about for weeks: Is Face.book making us sad?
When I first read this piece (guess where, ironically), I realized that it named the root of my love/hate relationship with the Time.Suck. Yes, it is a helpful communication tool for staying in touch with old friends and networking with new ones. Yes, it’s an easy way to share news, pictures, and updates quickly with a wide circle of family and friends. And yet, there was something about my daily (ok, multiple times daily) checking of the Time.Suck that made me feel, well, kind of crappy.
Led by Alex Jordan, who at the time was a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s psychology department, the researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends’ reactions to Face.book: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. “They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life,” he told me.
Bingo, I thought as I read the article. The Slate journalist and the study’s author both put their finger on what drives me nuts about Face.book: the idealized, sunny version of reality – and marriage and work and parenting and everything else – that people seem compelled to contrive and share as the update on their life. My family is perfect! My kids are perfect! My job is perfect! Our life is perfect – and here are the photos to prove it!
Sometimes I could simply roll my eyes and laugh, but other times I wound up feeling self-conscious and insecure, second-guessing myself. Why didn’t I seem as perfectly happy as other “friends”? What was wrong with me – or my spouse/kids/job/life? I’d sign off the Time.Suck feeling vaguely annoyed and unsettled, wondering why I’d spent 20 minutes cruising through status updates and photos only to leave with a bad taste in my mouth.
And then I read this:
The human habit of overestimating other people’s happiness is nothing new, of course. Jordan points to a quote by Montesquieu: “If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” But social networking may be making this tendency worse…By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people’s lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles’ heel of human nature.
That is true, and frightening, and even dangerous, in my estimation. And here’s where the article turns even more pertinent for this blog:
Any parent who has posted photos and videos of her child on Facebook is keenly aware of the resulting disconnect from reality, the way chronicling parenthood this way creates a story line of delightfully misspoken words, adorably worn hats, dancing, blown kisses. Tearful falls and tantrums are rarely recorded, nor are the stretches of pure, mind-blowing tedium. We protect ourselves, and our kids, this way; happiness is impersonal in a way that pain is not. But in the process, we wind up contributing to the illusion that kids are all joy, no effort.
This is an alarming off-shoot of the Web 2.0 world that Face.book is shaping: the illusions that other’s lives are much easier and happier than our own, and that we are somehow failing if we don’t create our own blissful version as well. Even since I read this line, it’s changed the way I look at photo albums on the Time.Suck. They are indeed carefully crafted creations of family life that in some way bear no resemblance to reality. Where are the bleary-eyed sleepless nights? The battles over potty-training? The screaming fights between parents and teenagers?
Of course, our family photo albums have almost never recorded these messy moments of life. And yet the constant stream of “life is perfect!” updates on Face.book can easily lull us into thinking that perhaps our friends are truly happier than we are, that perhaps we’re doing something wrong. We feel compelled to share the high points over the honest ones, and our snapshots and status updates weave together a seamless portrait of parenting as a sunny summer day.
The author of the study reminds us that, of course, none of this is true: the world and humans and families are just as broken and imperfect as they’ve always been:
Jordan, who is now a postdoctoral fellow studying social psychology at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, suggests we might do well to consider Facebook profiles as something akin to the airbrushed photos on the covers of women’s magazine. No, you will never have those thighs, because nobody has those thighs. You will never be as consistently happy as your Facebook friends, because nobody is that happy.
But I doubt I’m the only one who knows this truth intellectually, believes it with conviction, and yet still feels a sinking feeling in her gut when she sees the airbrushed thighs or the constant stream of perfectly happy updates on the Time.Suck. I know that’s not real, but still…
It’s no wonder Face.book aggravates anxiety and depression among teens – and probably the rest of us as well. I’d never thought about the Time.Suck as a dangerous influence on parents, but upon further reflection it seems that raising children and sharing an always-sunny version of reality online don’t seem to mix. I think the best of social networking shows its face when someone posts a desperate plea for help – L is wondering how on earth to get her colicky newborn to sleep/cranky toddler to behave/crafty teenager to keep his curfew – and the communal wisdom of the online world is quick to offer support and advice. Perhaps in this way, real life is not so different from the Internet version: we tend to brag and boast and want to put our best face forward, until we truly need help and can let down our guard.
Either way, I’m approaching my return to the Time.Suck with some wariness. I certainly won’t be visiting it with the same frequency once Lent is over – life feels healthier offline. But when I do go back, I think I’ll be more cautious about the version of my life I share with others. Is it real and recognizable? Is it honest and heartfelt? Or does it tend towards the air-brushed thighs? Temptations aren’t wholly cured by Lenten disciplines, that’s for sure.