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Dublin: 10 °C Sunday 31 August, 2014

Column: Facebook’s early childhood was… complicated.

Our relationship with Facebook has waxed and waned over these years as we oscillate between loving, adoring and depending on it, to needing to self-impose several ‘breaks’ from it as it drives us crazy, writes Colman Noctor.

Colman Noctor

FACEBOOK HAS BECOME part of our everyday discourse. As a friend said to me recently, imagine if you had said to someone 11 years ago ‘I poked your girlfriend last night’ – it would have had a very different outcome than what it does today. So, on Facebook’s 10th birthday, let’s have a reflection on its childhood so far.

Facebook usage has been on the rise since its inception in 2004. Currently, the number of Facebook users exceeds 1.26 billion people worldwide. Facebook was the brainchild of Mark Zuckerburg and was initially created as a social networking platform for university students. However now, 66 per cent of its current users are between the ages of 15-34 years. The popularity of Facebook in recent years can be highlighted in the fact that there were 100 million users in 2008 and 1.26 billion in 2013. In light of the pace of this evolution there has been little time to explore the psychological development and impact of this phenomenon.

Given the magnitude of this phenomenon, it is interesting to see whether the rise in social media has altered the way in which we communicate with each other. I feel that this form of communication has presented changes to previously held concepts such as privacy, intimacy, interpersonal relationships and emotional expression and this can be evidenced by the increased observation of how Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) is now a regular feature of psychotherapeutic discussions. There is some literature that backs this up when it indicates that people of all ages describe ‘strong emotional experiences’ of engaging with social networking sites (Williams 2000, Locatelli 2012, Choi 2000).

A new and incredibly popular form of communication

As a psychotherapist I am particularly interested in status updates as I feel they represent a new and incredibly popular form of communication. I feel that there is a revealing potential of the status update feature which might suggest that this new form of communication that is ‘more about connection than conversation’. I am a Facebook user and am in no way an anti-social media revolutionary, merely it is my concern that the rise of CMC in recent years has affected our capacity to reflect and be alone – as previous concepts of public, private, intimacy, friendship and emotional support have all undergone considerable revisions.

As of 2011, Facebook had 800 million active users, more than 50 per cent of those logged into the site on any given day (Facebook.com 2011). In psychotherapy practise, many clients share their emotional experiences of their online/social media experiences in the clinical space (Kolmes 2013). This evolution has led to terms such as ‘cyber bullying’, ‘social media addiction’, ‘problematic internet use’, ‘excessive online gaming’ and ‘Facebook Depression’ to become commonplace in the clinical area (Langois 2011). Some young people report a degree of emotional fallout which can result from their engagement with the Facebook activity known as ‘status updating’ but in the field of psychotherapy this is a concept that is largely unexplored (Pujazon-Zazik & Park 2010).

So let’s look at how this seems to have come about…

The early years

When Facebook was born, much like the promise of a newborn child, it held much hope and expectation. However in the beginning, again like a newborn, it did very little.

In the early days we spoke of how ‘handy’ Facebook might be to keep in touch with our friends and relatives in Australia and other far off places (which is a delusional explanation that still remains today). We spoke of well-intentioned usages for this new social platform, which were akin to the naive image of the new mother who pictures herself basking on a rocking chair with their beautifully cute and quiet child.

However, much like the new mother quickly finds out, the child is never quite as compliant or easy as the brochure would suggest. Facebook started to grow up. It introduced us to status updates, picture posting and gave us an opportunity to publicly display our skills and our flaws. As we engaged with this new connectivity over the coming years we saw Facebook as a place to brag, boast, garner attention, sympathy and to share with others what we chose to.

I liken this to the new parent who can mange others impression of themselves through their children as they don their new baby in the best Ralph Lauren babygrows in order to display their wares, or alternatively plead for sympathy or empathy as they tell everyone of their struggle with sleeplessness, colic and other challenges.

We embraced this new ‘baby Facebook’ in our lives in many different and unique ways that were in line with our desires or our insecurities.

Toddlerhood

As Facebook entered toddlerhood it began to show its capacity for mischief and disobedience. As users became aware of its capability, issues such as fraping, cyber bullying and social media abuse began to sneak in. We also saw how we had the capacity to ‘creep’ on the profiles of others, pass judgements and create significant levels of envy.

Anxieties were on the rise as the toddler became more and more interactive and the Facebook software did likewise. Much like the inquisitive 6-year-old, Facebook began asking more and more questions of us: what we liked, what we were feeling, what we were doing at every given moment – and much like the developing independent pre-teen, we were requested to give regular ‘check ins’.

Our relationship with this complicated ‘Facebook child’ has waxed and waned over these years as we oscillate between loving, adoring and depending on it, to needing to self-impose several ‘breaks’ from it as it drives us crazy. We have, despite our many different views of the Facebook software, developed many complex relationships with this phenomenon.

Sibling rivalry

Of course, the arrival of the sibling of Twitter caused some bit of a stir and many departed and became split between the rival children, yet Facebook has remained present for many despite the challenges of other contenders. Akin to many 8- and 9-year-olds, the playground became more competitive for Facebook as the likes of Instagram, Askfm and Snapchat arrived on the scene. Consequently, Facebook has had to become a bit more aggressive and ‘cool’ to maintain its status as the most popular kid in town. This has not been helped by the increase in parents coming onto Facebook which has had the effect similar to the 9-year-old’s mother kissing them goodbye in front of their pals…

This Facebook childhood has had its fair share of dramas and with cyber-bullies, sexual predators, frapings and now neknominations. It has been a far cry from an idyllic child initially imagined. Yet we remain truly committed to it despite our many threats to leave.

So it has been an interesting first 10 years for this ‘Facebook child’ and, we must remember, it is still a child. We can sometimes forget that Facebook is still relatively new, and like any other interested onlooker I am intrigued to see what adolescence has in store….

Colman Noctor is a Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytical Psychotherapist at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services.

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