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Addicted to Facebook? Part 2

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Yesterday I put up some excerpts from a study published by Gordon College. It found that a significant number of Christian college students report “several negative consequences” from their electronic activities. 12.7% of students report that they cannot stop using Facebook and similar technologies, even if they wanted to. This sounds rather like addiction, does it not?

I closed yesterday’s post by asking a series of questions:

So, what do you think? Is there such a thing as a Facebook addiction? If so, it is wrong (morally, psychologically, spiritually)? If so, what makes it wrong? How can we know if our use of Facebook (and related media) is problematic, even an unhealthy addiction?

As usual, I received some insightful comments. Thanks to those of you who participated (or sent emails). I want to respond to a few of the comments.

Michael noted how some people are quick to judge the use of things such as Facebook. He said, “The legalists love to speculate on how ‘wrong’ it is. I think adults are perpetually in a process of looking at what teenagers are doing and trying to decide how wrong it is. They are wonderfully blind to their own versions of it all (past and present).” I think Michael is right that it is tempting for people who don’t relate to Facebook to rush to judgment. It’s easy to criticize by saying something like: “Kids are spending more than two hours a day glued to their computer screens! How terrible!” How different it would sound if this behavior were described in another way: “Kids are spending more than two hours a day communicating with their friends!” In fact, Facebook is making it possible for millions of people to develop new relationships and build friendships. Surely this isn’t all bad!

My teenage children do spend quite a bit of time using Facebook and other electronice media to interact with their friends. This practice has not had a negative impact on their grades, morals, or ability to be physically with people. Nevertheless, I have sometimes fretted about how much time they’re spending in Web-based social media. But then I have thought back to my teenage years. What did I do when I was done with my homework? Usually, I watched TV. Were endless episodes of Gilligan’s Island more edifying than chatting online with a friend?

Bruce critiqued the language of the Gordon study, noting that a division between Facebook and “life” assumes that Facebook is somehow different or separate from life. In fact, Bruce observes, “[Facebook is] already “in” their lives. . . and the question becomes how does that fact enhance or detract from how they want their lives to be?” Great observation! We can easily talk as if Facebook-based communication is somehow less real than other kinds of communication. Yes, it is real in a different way from talking on the phone or speaking with someone face-to-face. But does that mean online communication is less real?

I am a moderate Facebook user. I spend less than a half-hour a day with Facebook and other social media (as opposed to two hours a day with email, mostly work related). What have I gained through Facebook? Mostly, I am able to stay in touch with friends and family members whom I can’t see very often because they live far away. Facebook hasn’t taken away from my face-to-face relationships. On the contrary, it has enhanced them. Moreover, because of Facebook, I am in much more communication with the teenage children of my friends, as well as with the friends of my children. Facebook has facilitated unprecedented inter-generational communication in my life.

I have also watched Facebook and similar media provide an opportunity for introverted people to forge relationships that they almost certainly would not have had without the Internet. Moreover, the use of online discussion in education gives those who are shy an opportunity to be more expressive. I heard this very thing from a college professor, who noted that outspoken individuals used to have an unfair advantage in classroom conversations. When he added an online discussion component to his classes, many quieter students turned out to have much to say. Not only were the introverted students included in a way that seemed fair, but also the overall quality of class interaction was raised.

It seems to me that when it comes to Facebook and other sorts of media, we must think carefully and critically about its impact on our lives. In order to think this way, we must beware of knee-jerk, biased responses, whether they be positive or negative. Moreover, we need to think about our use of the media from a diversity of perspectives. For example, I have spoken with a leading brain scientist who is deeply concerned that the way teenagers communicate electronically may be harming their mental and emotional development. He is worried that the tendency for teenagers to be chatting online with friends and texting through their phone while doing their homework is preventing their brains from learning to do sustained, deep, focused thinking. It may turn out that what is truly harmful to young people isn’t spending three hours a day on Facebook, but rather staying online while doing work that deserves more thoughtfulness.

Topics: Internet |

5 Responses to “Addicted to Facebook? Part 2”

  1. Michael Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 5:13 am

    I am sympathetic to your concerns toward the end of this post. As an instructional designer in distance education, we are always thinking about the challenge of engaging students. Distance education gets the disproportionate amount of attention and scrutiny, though I see the same problems in face to face classes. Namely, instructors think they can be a talking head, a “sage on the stage” and somehow keep the attention of students.

    Our mp3 players hold tens of thousands of songs. But now we can hardly listen through a whole song. There are exceptions, of course, when music is in the background, but the wonderful power and freedom to zip around to different tracks is a double-edged sword that also could turn us into fickle, ADD listeners.

    The internet changed education. Information is now no longer exclusively in authority-approved, stamped textbooks. Now anyone can find information about any topic of their own volition, a resource that outclasses any library in breadth and scope exponentially. You can use google and find people discussing any topic you are interested in.

    But it leaves some important questions in its wake. We have all this information —- but is it good information? How do we use information? How do you evaluate it? What is it for? These were always more important skills and questions, even before the internet. I think teaching information literacy is far more important than any raw information. Again, this has always been true before the internet, but perhaps is easier to see now that information is so readily available.

    You brought up television. I think the main advantage of the internet is the participation. While early on the internet was relatively passive (read news, browse the Yahoo directory), it very quickly became a collaborative medium. Now we have blogs, comments, youtube videos, wikis, countless ways to be involved. All of this at a learning curve that a majority of people can handle — no programming necessary.

    TV is almost universally a passive medium, and so unless combined with stimulating activities, discussions, its power is usually diluted.

    This involvement and user-centeredness of the internet is why it is such a powerful tool of engagement and community. It is also why it can become a pit of narcissism. Even seemingly “educational” narcissism. I can lose hours on wikipedia, snopes, tvtropes and other sites learning information that is usually fairly accurate and true, peer edited, interesting. But what good does it do me?

    Anyway, good thought-provoking posts. Us distance educators are asking these questions constantly, and if you do a little bit of googling you will find countless studies comparing face-to-face to distance communication. (Hint: Distance Education doesn’t do any worse than face to face, and can often perform better.)

  2. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    September 15th, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Michael: Thanks for your thoughtful input. Very helpful to me and my readers. And, though I didn’t mention it, in general, I would rather have my teenagers interacting with friends online than watching TV precisely because it is such a passive medium.

  3. Rick Says:
    September 16th, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Does it seem odd to others that the Christian community is quick to express disdain for new forms of communication, whether they be music, information, or music, only to later engage them as ways to win souls to Christ?
    As a youth in the ’60s and ’70s I heard many a preacher talk of the dangers of rock music. I heard similar teachings when computers became popular in the ’80s and even more as the World Wide Web came to prominence in the ’90s. Now it is electronic forms of socializing.
    While I agree that almost anything, Facebook included, can become an idol in our lives, I sit here wondering why we Believers cannot be at the forefront of utilizing these new tools for God’s Kingdom?

  4. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    September 16th, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Rick: What a great question! I wonder if it is often a generational issue, with older folk (like me) failing to get what’s really going on with younger folk, and being threatened by it. At the same time, it’s possible that older folk (like me) can see with more wisdom than younger folk, who tend to embrace the new and different more readily. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just calm down and listen to each other, seeking the Lord attentively and with mutual love and respect! What an odd idea!

  5. Rick Says:
    September 18th, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Well, as one who has celebrated many 29th birthdays myself, I know there was a time when I “pushed back” against anything “new and fancy.” With each year, though, I have been less resistant to “new things” as long as they can truly bring glory to our Lord and are not just a celebration of all things technological.


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