As a 19-year-old college freshman, Megan Meier enjoys hanging out with friends, going to university sporting events, listening to music and spending time with her family on breaks from school. At least, she would if she were alive. In reality, Meier committed suicide on October 17, 2006, after a Myspace hoax planned by an ex-friend and her mother went awry. Meier’s death was one of the earliest news events that shed light on the emotional implications of social networking sites.
Since their invention, experts have targeted social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook as the cause for a slew of emotional and psychological issues, including cyber-bullying. One of the most dangerous aspects of such sites are the feelings of anonymity or invincibility that many users seem to feel when using them. Many find that posting a nasty comment on someone’s page, for instance, is ten thousand times easier than insulting them to their face. Meier’s bullies, a girl with whom she had a disagreement, and the girl’s mother, created a Myspace account for an imaginary boy they called Josh Evans in order get revenge on Meier for her part in the fight.
Josh Evans claimed to be a 16-year-old home-schooled child that lived near Megan and sent an e-mail and friend request to her Myspace page.
After accepting Josh’s request, he and Megan began a seemingly promising correspondence, which unraveled after he began to post insulting messages on her page and sent her a message that read, “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you any longer because I hear you’re not nice to your friends.” Megan, who had a history of low self-esteem and depression, then hanged herself in her bedroom closet, and was found a day later.
Such incidents have become tragically common, and include the March 2010 suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince after she was assaulted with a barrage of hateful comments on Twitter, Facebook and Craigslist, and the September 2010 suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi after his roommate streamed a video of his sexual activity on iChat.
Social networking is an explosively growing trend. In 2010, Facebook beat out Google as the most-visited website of the year, and the communications company Airwide Solutions has predicted that by 2015, social networking will beat out the telephone and text messaging as the most popular form of communication. Immediate availability has its advantages, but also changes the nature of social interaction.
“In terms of interaction, social networking can be really negative in some ways,” said Ilana Reyes, a counselor at AHS. “When I have a conversation with someone face-to-face there is all kinds of inflection and tone present, but when I write something in a Facebook post a lot can be lost. It also allows things to spread really quickly, and there’s all this instant gratification because your newsfeed is constantly updated, so things are easily blown out of proportion.”
Lady Susan Greenfield, a professor of synaptic psychology at Lincoln College, Oxford, even warns that Facebook and other networking sites risk changing the way that children’s minds work. She told the House of Lords that interactions on social networking sites are “devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance.” She warns that this “infantilizes” the minds of the technology generation, whose attention spans are shortened through the rapid communication interchange that occurs on networking sites, and who are characterized by lack of empathy, a shaky sense of identity, and sensationalism.
Many other experts have arrived at the same conclusions as Greenfield, stating that network site users who frequently view the pages of friends often face feelings of inadequacy over their own lives and that many users have reported basing their views of themselves on the number of notifications they receive a day, or the number of wall posts they receive on their birthdays.
Narcissism is also a widely reported effect of social networking, especially among teenagers.
“Developmentally, as a teenager, you’re self-centered,” said Reyes. “It’s literally part of psychological development, that between certain ages every teenager feels like they’re onstage and everyone is focusing on them. The problem is that sites like Facebook make normal, everyday activities seem like they’re especially important. Ten years ago, if I were going to Starbucks no one would care unless I invited them. Today, you see status updates like that all the time.”
By allowing users a personal forum to share often insignificant occurrences and ideas, social networking sites enforce the self-centered attitude held by many teenagers and many experts worry that extensive use of such sites could prolong or perpetuate the narcissistic stage of development that every adolescent experiences.
Social networking sites are now an integral part of modern communication and it seems their popularity will only continue to grow. According to many experts, however, centering their lives around a virtual community might expose teenagers to greater emotional and psychological risks than what appears at face value.