Imagine your secondary school introduces a new facility. At any given moment, the school auditorium can be filled with everyone you know, and at any time you can go up on stage and say something about anything you like. Everyone in the audience is issued with cards they can hold up if they like what you say. You can also see everything your friends say, and how many people hold up their cards for them, and, at any time, see if anyone else decided to hold up their card for you.
For me, as a teenager, this would have been my worst nightmare: A whole degree beyond the primary school humiliation of picking sports teams and country dancing partners. But as you’ve guessed, in facebook, every teenager now has that facility. As a member of the micro-generation born between ’77 and ’83, I grew up without technology but could choose how to use it before I had children. I know perfectly normal people of that generation (and I have been there) who cannot bring themselves to post anything personal on facebook because they dont want to deal with the feelings of inadequacy the system of ‘likes’ engenders. They have that choice. I don’t think today’s teenagers do.
I read recently a Comment in a major broadsheet that said healthy use of social media was down to parental control. I think that’s naive. Beyond the issues of screen time, beyond even cyber-bullying, there is something in the whole structure of interactions on facebook are counter-productive for people coming to terms with who they are and their understanding of the world, and particularly in a post-modern enviroment where everything is fluid.
First, facebook is not primarily a conversation, an interaction on something of mutual interest, but a system of consumption. You put out something. Others state how much they like it or value it; by implication, how much they they like or value you. It’s a cliche to say that we have moved as a society from citizens to consumers, but in facebook we have adopted something that turns even our friends into something to be consumed. And because there is no respite, at any time someone else might have liked or commented on our post, our thoughts can be continually drawn to what others are saying about our own value, and comparing what reaction we have had to those of our friends. It takes a person who is very secure to look at a post from a friend with 100 likes and not feel a pang of envy, or to look at the likes on their own post and wonder if there will be any more. Writers from St Paul to Max Ehrman (author of Desiderata) say that constant comparison with others is deeply unhealthy for our own self-esteem and emotional well-being. Even if screen time is limited, do we really think teenagers will turn their preoccupations away from such a readily available popularity league table?
Because, secondly, facebook never sleeps, and it does not compartmentalise. I know that my saving grace lay in the ability to leave school behind me, to interact with different sets of friends with a different persona. I can remember still the nose dive from happiness to absolute inadequacy as I bumped into someone from school at a University gathering where I finally felt accepted. The idea of having to carry the weight of expectation, the uncertainty of what would be accepted, the failure to fit in, the inability to be different with different people without respite I know I would have found intolerable.
But finally and most importantly, the constant focus on yourself and your reception by your peers is not only unhealthy in itself but carries a massive opportunity cost. As Emma John has written about so brilliantly in ‘Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket’, your teenage years are uniquely when you have time and enthusiasm for all sorts of random pursuits. Whether it’s sport, music, novels, poetry, climbing, fashion, insects, robotics, campaigning, or politics, it is these discretionary preoccupations of teenagehood that have a formative impact: A deposit of interests and roots in something beyond ourselves we may always be able to tap back into. To deny our brains those preoccupations in favour of an obsession with self or popularity is to impoverish everyone. Of course teenagers still do these things, but the nagging preoccuption of what’s going on on social media, must surely shackle their engagement and enjoyment.
So, what can be done? These would be my recommendations for accounts for under-18s but I’m sure there are loads of others out there.
First to deal with the constant preoccupation, could they limit the hours that under-18 accounts are active in the same timezone? If no one can post, nothing can change. And also, please can they set a guillotine on how long after a post it can be ‘liked’, then the agony of reception has a set limit.
Secondly, for younger users (under 16?) can they limit accounts to interacting as part of a ‘group’. Facebook has such a potential for community action, school councils getting views on issues affecting students, mobilising fundraising, campaigning etc. The value of comments then becomes how far they help the purpose of the facebook group, not how well they are ‘liked’. Similarly, youth branches of organisations, sports clubs, fan clubs etc use facebook to enrich young people’s interactions with the issues they deal with. Social media as a virtual conversation about an external issue would be much less pernicious.
Perhaps I overestimate the use of facebook with it’s ‘like’ structure and actually everyone is on a much more healthy conversation app. Perhaps everyone else can cope with much more than I could. By the way, I don’t mind if you don’t ‘like’ this. I only check facebook twice a day now anyway! But I would like to know what you think.