Why Facebook might be bad for your emotional health

Quite a long time ago I came across a list of ‘Thots’, silly one-liners that people put up on Facebook or under their email ‘signature’. Most were only mildly entertaining:

“Do NOT argue with a spouse who is packing your parachute”

“I’m not sure how ambivalent I should be”  That sort of thing.

But there was one that really stuck in my mind and I’ve been mulling it over ever since:

“Don’t tell your troubles to other people – 95% of them don’t care and the other 5% of them are glad you have them”

On the face of it this is a deeply cynical comment that denies the reality that there are a (small) percentage of your friends who are interested in your life and do really care. But it also contains a seed of truth and I think it is a salutary warning that is especially relevant to communicating over Facebook, blogs or any other social network.

Now, don’t me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with posting up on FB or writing a blog (says she, writing a blog!)

But, here’s the deal: it has to NOT matter whether anyone reads your post, clicks ‘like’ to your blog or replies with a comment.

If it matters ‘a bit’ whether anyone responds, well, that’s probably normal but the risk with social networking is that it can come to matter ALOT.  And that’s why I agree with that cynical ‘thot’: you should never wear your heart on your sleeve on FB. Having said that we all know that relentlessly cheerful, upbeat and positive comments are frankly nauseating (‘Look at me – I have a perfect family, perfect life’, blah, blah. Yeah, great. Get real)  on the other hand you have to be very careful about what bad news you do share.  Because if something is really devastating or personally distressing, how much worse will that feel if no one notices/responds to your pain?

And mostly the reason they don’t respond is that their own lives are too full/they are too busy to be on FB/maybe they don’t happen to see your post/they have pressures of their own/they feel that merely commenting would be inadequate. They are not cruel and heartless and they are not deliberately ignoring you.

But if getting a response matters TOO MUCH and you don’t get one (or you don’t get enough of a reaction) then it’s all too easy to leap to  those conclusions. So really, it’s wise to only go public about stuff that ‘does not matter’ (or at least does not matter that much).

If something really matters then you need to be talking to a human being face to face not into ‘Internet Empty Space’.

And the everyday reality of our face to face relationships is that most of us have to wave either a ‘red flag’  (I’m angry) or a ‘white flag’ (‘I’m distressed’) in someone’s face  pretty vehemently before we get the ‘listening to’ that we deserve.  (Sometimes we try other brightly coloured flags such as ‘come and I’ll feed you if you listen to me‘ but these don’t always work. Red, white or simple honesty such as ‘I need to talk’ usually work best).

Even when we have ‘flagged up’ our need, most of us only have a very small number of people in our lives who are well enough tuned in to us to be able to pick up the emotional ‘crackle’ of interference in our communication.  And out of this very small number of people, one of them still needs to a) care enough b) have the time (and yes, even sometimes the courage)  to say ‘Hey, what’s up?’

And what I most want to say about all this, is that this is NORMAL!!

It is normal to only have ‘a very small number’ of people who really know you that well. The danger of FB is that it creates the expectation that everyone should be noticing our lives. If we are not careful it puts us at risk of an over-inflated sense of our own importance, especially if we get a lot of positive comments. (Ha! ha! You were going to comment on this post but now you daren’t!). I can see why some people give up FB for Lent and the very fact that I’m writing about this subject tells you I have not been immune to these dangers.

So what I saying?  Here are what have become my rules for emotionally healthy social networking:

  1. Don’t diss your friends because they never get round to commenting on your blog or responding to your posts. Don’t even be disappointed in them. If you can’t help being disappointed, if it matters TOO much (how often do you check to see if people have commented?)  step away from the computer, take FB off your phone or maybe even get off FB altogether for the sake of your own emotional well-being.
  2. If you write a blog, write it because you enjoy writing and not because it matters whether anyone ever reads it (Oh, what years of writing experience have contributed to that piece of wisdom!)
  3. Treasure the friends who can occasionally lay aside their own agendas and offer you the gift of listening. Recognise that this is a big ask, so make sure you offer that gift to them, as and when you can.
  4. Before you post something up, ask yourself ‘how will I feel if no one responds to this?’
  5. Be very wary of those  ‘put this as your status if you really care’ or a ‘does anyone ever read my posts‘ type appeals. These are emotionally poisonous. You will be led to make false assumptions about the loyalty or caring nature of your FB friends because (for a huge variety of reasons) they don’t repost your appeal or reply to your post.  I avoid these entirely, even though some of them are about very worthy causes, so sorry to all those people I’ve offended. I am very happy to put up a signpost for information which people can follow if they want to but I’m not going to demand that other people publicise my cause, at least not in a way that manipulates their emotions – by asking them to ‘show me you really care’. Asking me to do that will guarantee I wont, but not because I don’t care, maybe because there are better ways to show I care?

On a personal note:

In the last month, D, H and C have all listened to me in varying degrees. Thank you, you know who you are (and the chances are you are not even reading this blog)  but I am grateful to God for you anyway. Don’t worry, it’s not a job for life (except in your case D!) next month it might be E or N or M. And I hope, in turn, I can be the person who listens to you.

4 thoughts on “Why Facebook might be bad for your emotional health

Add yours

  1. Well I AM leaving a comment, Sheila.
    I’m also going to be sharing this with my FB contacts!
    You have articulated very well what I have believed ever since I started using FB & Twi**er, and what I suspect many others believe but cannot or will not articulate: Fb (and Twi**er & blogs) can so easily reinforce an inaccurate picture of one’s true social networks.
    On a slight tangent, this is one of the reasons I am contemplating not using FB after the Timeline format becomes mandatory for everyone. This firmly places ME at the centre of everything even more strongly (“curating my life”); my purpose in using FB & Twi**er is not ‘curate my life’ but to keep in touch, share some stuff & find out what others are up to in an informal way.
    So thanks for your thoughtful & helpful reflections, and even if you didn’t anticipate any response you’ve one grateful – if somewhat distant – friend!

    1. Thanks Simon, great to hear from you. I’m glad you found this helpful but I know I’m only stating what a lot of people kind of instinctively know. Probably this is only likely to reach those who don’t really need to hear it.
      Also thanks for the warning about FB timeline, I didn’t know that was going to become compulsory and I have to say I agree, I don’t like it. It’s makes you look even more like you are masterminding a ‘shop-front’ view of yourself. FB really needs to keep the emphasis on communication not self-promotion. When does it become compulsory? I’m not sure what I’ll do at that point because FB is a very useful tool even with all its drawbacks. For example, it allows me insights into the lives of ‘distant’ but still important friends! (I enjoy seeing Pips updates too) with love

  2. For the last year and a bit there has been a lot that my wife and I have not put on FB, in my blog or even in our Christmas letter because it didn’t seem right. What happened was too painful and airing it in public would not have helped anyone. In the end we walked away from a church that we had attended for many years (all of mine) without kicking up a fuss. That is a good example of not putting everything on-line.
    At the same time I had ‘met’ a woman through her blog and FB in Seattle who was experiencing something very similar and we started exchanging e-mails and FB messages as we prayed for each other. Most of what we said wasn’t public but she had put just enough on her blog for me to realise what was going on and to establish contact. So sometimes it does help to put something out there on the internet.
    I do agree with you over the “put this as your status if…” entries – I don’t even put up the mental health/depression ones which do apply to me. If I know the person well I may comment but otherwise I ignore them.

  3. Hi Sheila
    I had a similar experience to Hugh and his wife over two years ago and chose not to share the reasons why I had to leave church or the emotions involved. Needless to say it was painful. Facebook enabled me to get in touch with old friends and work colleagues and other believers which has been helpful in moving on in my faith. However what was still painful was seeing old church friend’s posts relating to church life, which would not have occurred to them at all and why should it you might say. And so the lesson for me has been to try and lessen my time on Facebook which has not been as easy as one would think! Therefore there are pros and cons and whilst I enjoy catching up with friends, I think caution is needed in just how much we are prepared to share of our lives particularly when we consider our professional lives too.

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