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Science & Technology | October 31, 2012

The Facebook facade

Social media

Students say the social network designed to bring people together often leaves them feeling alone and dissatisfied

©iStockPhoto/Artiom Muhaciov

Like most other college students, Michael Anderson uses Facebook to keep up with family and friends. But reading other people's posts doesn't always make him happy.

Seeing a good friend from home pop up on his news feed elicits nostalgia for another place and time. Seeing pictures of someone from the past sometimes causes bitterness to flare up inside him. A family member's status update can awaken loving sentiments.

But more often than not, the most profound emotion Anderson associates with Facebook is dissatisfaction. And he's not alone.

Comparing ourselves to others is nothing new. But social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and Instagram often perpetuate the false notion the grass is greener on the other side of the screen.

"Pictures make you remember something that you wish you were," said Anderson, a student at North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem N.C.

Life is a constant struggle to be content with yourself, and dissatisfaction multiplies with the time people take to dwell on other's business, he said. Facebook just has an amazing ability to capture that time.

But Facebook's engrossing addictiveness is only part of the problem. The heart of the issue is that people inevitably compare their own lives to the "reality" they see on other people's profiles, pictures and status updates that don't often represent people's lives accurately.

"We put out what we want people to think about us," said Rebecca Olson, a senior at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Ga. "But if you want people to see the best side of you, you're not showing who you really are."

L'Anni Hill, a therapist at Cornerstone Professional Center in Atlanta, Ga., agrees that Facebook can present a distorted perspective of others. Many college students Hill sees say they feel very alone after reading Facebook posts, thinking everyone else is having a much better life than they are-an effect that many counselors refer to as "Facebook depression."

But comparing yourself to others on Facebook can also be an ego-booster, Olsen said. Sometimes she keeps Facebook friends so that she can see their trainwrecks and feel better about herself, she admitted.

Seeing people publicize their inner lives on Facebook bolsters Anderson as well. When he sees someone sharing something inappropriate or embarrassing, he feels grateful he's not falling into the same traps.

Although Anderson enjoys Facebook, he believes that using it wisely requires setting boundaries. Facebook is solely an entertainment system-not a radar for what people are doing and not doing, he said.

In order to preserve this mentality, Anderson purposely blocked Facebook and other social media on his computer, so that he can focus on the work he needs to get done. His parents have the unlock code.

"The block is out of my control," he said. "That means that other people are involved in my life and my problems and my situations. It's really humbling and vulnerable, and it's powerful."

Hill believes that Facebook-related dissatisfaction warrants this type of intentional response: "When too much Facebooking interferes with our work or our relationships, it may be becoming an 'addiction,' and we may need to pull the plug on it for awhile just to show the computer who's boss."

Facebook is a great way to stay in touch with people, but few can use it and still find a way to be vulnerable without being self-deprecating, Hill said. Ultimately, a Christian perspective--not a Facebook perspective--offers the only solution to dissatisfaction.

"From a Christian perspective, we know that people are like 'jars of clay' which are fragile and easily cracked, but God affirms that within us is buried treasure," Hill said.

Recognizing this truth, in relation to the distortions of Facebook's facade, enables us to relate to one another in a healthy way on Facebook and other social media, she said. Only when people are truly vulnerable will others see the treasure within us, she said.