Is Facebook the High School We Never Leave?

Though most people do personally know at least some of their Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and LinkedIn connections, we tend to be less inhibited when we share on these platforms, as we might in a crowd of people who don’t really know us.  For young people, the disembodied, anonymous feeling of social media communication can have painful, even dangerous consequences, as revealed by numerous blogs, studies, and articles about cyberbullying.  Rachel Simmons’ re-release of her best-selling and groundbreaking book Odd Girl Out includes several new chapters that specifically address the role of social media in young girls’ lives.  Emboldened by distance and something like invisibility, young people say things to each other or about themselves that they would never say face-to-face, on the phone, or in the presence of an adult.  Since social media and the internet are clearly not just a trend, Simmons and other experts urge parents to talk to their kids about social media, encourage media literacy and education, and be aware of and involved in their child’s online life.  But are kids the only ones that are engaging in hurtful or destructive behavior online?

Adults, too, use social media, particularly Facebook, in a way that reveals insecurities, jealousies, concealed emotions—all the angst-y behavior that we typically associate with adolescence.  Just like kids, when adults are alone, bathed in the white glow of the computer screen, they tweet, post, and message impulsively.

For example, A particularly common adolescent behavior performed by adults on Facebook is the underhanded-asking-for-sympathy status update.  The status could be fairly straightforward, something like, “Could it get any worse?” or perhaps it’s a famous quote that refers to hard times, “What doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger, right?”  These fishing-for-praise/compliments posts are usually successful, eliciting a few comments, maybe even a “like.”

Another go-to is the passive aggressive status update: “I’m so tired of selfish people” or “No more second chances,” messages that clearly have an intended party, but don’t name them.   Obviously the unspecified recipient must be listening (ie reading), or else the post wouldn’t have been written.  Broadcasting a private argument or conflict to hundreds of people—if that’s not bullying, what is?

A less public but just as deliberate regressive behavior is stalking—spending hours and hours sifting through pictures of ex-boyfriends, former rivals, or secret crushes.  Measuring the waistline of the woman who married your college sweetheart or comparing the growth of your former classmate’s baby to your own—these tasks are masochistic.  Why do we put ourselves through it?  Is it because we just can’t help it?  The temptation, the access to that information, is difficult to resist.

A disclaimer: I am addicted to Facebook, and I acknowledge that not all people use it in this way.  Some adults really do use Facebook just to keep in touch with friends, share pictures with their family, or promote their business.  Some people would never dream of posting in the manner I just described.  But we all have at least one friend that does, and chances are we’ve never approached them about it.  This behavior is risky and reflects poorly on the writer, though, especially since so many of us use social media to keep in touch with our coworkers, and since so many employers use social media to check out candidates.

At the risk of sounding too “the children are our future,” I have to ask—how can we demand that our children (well, not my children—I don’t have any.  But kids in general.) learn to act responsibly and maturely online when the average adult demonstrates so many childish behaviors in the same space?  When a grown woman posts “So tired…in the emergency room all night” and only later (and privately) reveals that she was there because she nicked her thumb while cutting a bagel, do we tell her that she is the boy who cried wolf?  No, but we would tell that to a fourteen year old.

And here’s my larger question– are these behaviors really childish, or are they just human?  Do we ever truly grow out of the need to bully, fish for compliments, and spy on people, or was the opportunity to act on these urges simply not as present until social media came along?  Is Facebook a high school we never graduate from?