Mark D. Roberts

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.

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