After watching my 15 year old nephew spend nearly 8 consecutive hours on Facebook one day, I asked him what he could possibly be writing about since he hadn’t done anything that day other than be on Facebook. Needless to say he looked at me like I was from another planet and immediately went back to 550 of his “closest” Facebook friends.
But of course Facebook is not just a teenage phenomenon. With Goldman Sachs investing $500 million into Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg being named Person of the Year 2010 by Time Magazine and The Social Network receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, the company has been further established as a behemoth that is poised to compete with the Googles of the world. Facebook and social networking in general have arguably become as woven into our culture as any other modern day invention and are clearly reshaping our definition of friendship and our overall perceptions of relationships. We are confronted with the challenge of determining the nature of human interactions for future generations. This is no small task.
Countless research studies (and frankly common sense) have demonstrated that the most critical component for determining the degree of one’s happiness is the quality of one’s relationships. In a study conducted by Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, leading researchers in the burgeoning field of Positive Psychology, they found that the most salient characteristics shared by people with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them. While a virtual connection is certainly a genuine connection, it is difficult (although I agree not impossible) in a relationship that is primarily or entirely maintained through the internet for this to occur. In reality, is it really possible to maintain hundreds of meaningful relationships?
Social networking has certainly made it easier to stay in touch with old friends who have become geographically distant. Nonetheless, it is inevitable that emotional closeness will significantly decline in the absence of face to face interaction. It has also interconnected disparate pockets of friends that people collect over the course of their lives, and has facilitated the development of many valuable virtual communities that bring dispersed groups of people together. However, an online community cannot replicate the human connection that is produced from daily face to face interactions with a neighbor, or the smile or touch of a friend who we see on our street or in the local store.
There is no doubt that the social networking industry has opened up possibilities to the world which we could have never fathomed and is one of the most important inventions of the last twenty years. But as technology has evolved it has become even more challenging to dedicate the energy necessary to nurture the most important aspect of our lives, our relationships. Social networking provides us with an opening to reflect on the quality of our most cherished bonds and to take steps towards enhancing these connections. Moreover, it presents opportunities to educate the “Facebook Generation” about the value of meaningful relationships and the skills necessary for building them. As empirical evidence continues to emerge and clinical interventions evolve, the time has come to develop standardized relationship curricula that can be offered to young adults as they establish foundations for their lives.
Maybe we just like thinking that we have hundreds of quality friends and live in close knit virtual villages. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t let it become a substitute for the real thing. Who knows, if I follow my own advice, one day I may even merit a slightly less quizzical glance from my nephew.
Marc J. Shulman, Psy.D. is a psychologist / therapist / marriage counselor in Garden City, NY (near Carle Place), and Lawrence, NY, on Nassau County, Long Island.