Today is an uncertain, challenging, and even scary moment in time. With the continuing rise of the COVID-19 pandemic and everyone quarantining and sheltering in place, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone.
For myself, during the time I have both utilized Facebook, as well as spending less time with it. I do use it to connect with friends and family at this time when we aren’t having face-to-face interactions, so that we can keep up with one another and try to bridge that distance. It’s also nice to continue to stay in touch with other friends who I rarely see (some I’ve never met) who don’t live close to me, to share in this unique situation of our lives. At the same time, I limit my “scrolling” the news feed and general time spent on it, because it can get overwhelming and easy to over-use.
But overall, with the situation we are all living in right now, I think that the role a tool like Facebook provides can be a real gamechanger for many people. It can really help to foster connection and relieve isolation, loneliness or depression, when utilized in healthy ways.
Take Marcia Noyes, for example. She is someone who rarely loses touch with friends. The marathon runner uses the Internet to post stories and photographs of her long-distance races; but recently, the use of Facebook to reconnect friendship was brought home to her in a powerful way. A high school friend, whom Noyes had not seen in 30 years, sent her a friend request on the social networking site.
“She told me how much she appreciated me toting a camera while doing long runs and how much those photos meant to her,” Noyes says. “She went on to say that she lived through each of those pictures and as I wrote about what I’d seen along the way, she felt as if she had run that same distance and seen those same sites.”
Noyes soon learned that the friend, Karan Vance, was living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and was in hospice with only months or weeks to live. For Noyes, running suddenly took on new meaning.
“As each step rolled into the next, I drew in long slow inhales of air, wondering what it must feel like to struggle for each breath. Karan died earlier this year and I’m so happy that she befriended me and I was able to bring some happiness to the last few months of her life.”
While most of our experiences with online friendships aren’t that dramatic, the digital age has completely changed the landscape of human interaction and how we communicate. Facebook has made it easier to reconnect with old friends, maintain friendships across long distances, and “meet” new people we might not have found otherwise, sometimes creating very close and meaningful virtual friendships.
Facebook takes away the awkwardness of approaching new people and the in-between time of transition from acquaintance to friend, says Lynn Kindler, a professional life coach in Austin. “It’s helped me with acquaintances I’ve known but was too shy to broach cultivating a friendship. I now feel completely comfortable getting together and interacting face-to-face, because of getting to know them better on Facebook.” The social network connections have also benefitted Kindler professionally, as over time she felt comfortable enough to invite some friends to be guests on her blog talk radio show, Hope42Day.
A global community
By and large, people seem to feel that these positive aspects of Facebook bring a new, welcome dimension to their relationships and social interaction. Leila Kalmbach has kept in touch with travel friends from around the world, meeting up in such far-flung places as New Zealand and Nicaragua. Dawnene Harper counts as some of her closest friends those she met in online Dharma groups, which extended into Facebook—and she also credits the site with helping her reestablish a relationship with a sister whom she hadn’t seen in years.
“We have been able to share so much of our daily lives through chatting, status updates and photos that we normally would never have been able to,” Harper says. “I’m thrilled that my sister and I have reconnected; we have both learned a lot about each other.”
Potential for harm
Yet online interaction has its down side. While we are more networked than ever in a world where we need not be out of contact for a second, new research shows that we have never been lonelier. For many, online socializing has replaced real, face-to-face friendship in a way that can be isolating.
At the Human-Computer Institute at Carnegie Mellon, Research Scientist Moira Burke ran a longitudinal study of 1,200 Facebook users and found that those who communicated directly with others—via comments, chat and personal messages—tended to increase their social capital. They became less lonely, while those who received “one-click communication”—for example, clicking the like button—experienced no change in loneliness. And passive consumption in a non-personalized way had a correlation with feelings of disconnectedness and depression.
“Facebook can make us feel disconnected if people begin to use it as substitutions for real-life interactions,” says Dr. Julie Gurner, a doctor of clinical psychology. “Facebook can make you feel lonely because often your true self is never really known. For many they may feel pressure to portray themselves in a certain light. Showing pictures of your marriage as ‘happy’ may be masking a true relationship that is struggling, or portraying yourself as more financially successful might be hiding true fiscal security concerns. When you cannot portray yourself honestly, you never feel authentically connected or receive the support that comes with real engagement. How can others comfort you if they don’t know that you are truly struggling?”
There is also the often-detrimental comparison aspect of the online world, where we compare our everyday lives to the highlight reel of others’ lives that is shown on Facebook and similar sites. Gurner says this often leaves people feeling that everyone else’s lives are more exciting and successful than their own.
And of course, online-only communication is missing vital aspects of human interaction: facial expression, body language, tone and inflection. “When you take away real-time facial expressions and interactions, you miss a very key element of what makes human relationships satisfactory on both sides,” says Gurner, who recommends using Facebook as a supplement to our relationships and not a substitution.
A first step to in-person relationships
More and more people are meeting in real life after meeting online in various ways; dating coach Adam LoDolce cites Facebook as one of his top five ways to quickly meet people, especially if you’re new to a city.
“Old friends from high school, college, or maybe that random person you met on your Euro trip five years ago—you never know who now lives in your city,” says LoDolce. The benefit of Facebook in the dating world is that you can usually know quite a bit about a person up-front, including relationship status. “Before the age of Facebook, when you liked someone you had to take initiative and potentially face rejection if the person was already in a relationship.” But LoDolce adds that he believes a little rejection here and there can be healthy, reminding us that it’s not the end of the world.
In the end, perhaps it is just being aware that rejection and loneliness exist in online social interaction as well as offline; when we use Facebook as a tool, and not our primary way of connecting with others, it can bring tremendous benefits to friendship.
“Sometimes we can interact with people on Facebook instead of spending time creating or nurturing the relationships that could possibly exist around us, leaving us to miss out on some of the wonderful experiences that make life interesting and unique,” says Gurner. “Hopefully we can still truly connect at the dinner table with the person we love or think of more personal touches to those we don’t see often. Still sending a handwritten note, talking by Skype or phone, mailing a package for no reason at all, and visiting when able provides experiences that are impossible to replicate in an online world.”
Lynn Kindler’s Top Facebook Rules
- Consider before clicking. Do not write or post anything that you wouldn’t want your mother, the President of the U.S., your children or God knows who else to see or read.
- Keep it professional. You are making a digital footprint of yourself that will be out there forever; don’t put out today what could come back to haunt you tomorrow. Would you want your boss or a prospective boss to see certain photos of you or read your political rant or cursing?
- If you have connected with well-known people, treat them with respect. If you “like” something they’ve posted, “like” it, or leave occasional comments. If you share a photo or status, give proper credit to the original poster.
- Know when to take it offline. For anything deeper in terms of conversations or relationships, take it offline into a private conversation, chat or phone call. And even with that, have a definite purpose tor the person to connect with you.