Facebook or Fakebook??

Navigating friendships is a consistent and prevalent challenge for teenage girls. As if dealing with cliques, frenemies and BFFs isn’t enough, the obsession with social networking sites like Facebook have put the very concept of “friendship” up for debate.

How is it that a girl with hundreds of friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram can feel utterly isolated, lonely and disconnected?

Here are a few of the contributing factors that explain this new age phenomenon:

1)  Internet friendships are skin deep and hollow at the core. To have a friend on Facebook means to know what someone had for breakfast, which celebrity they just spotted or what YouTube video they love. To have a friend in reality means to know someone’s deepest insecurities, what they are truly passionate about and what terrifies them more than anything. There is a major discrepancy here and it is skewing the entire social life of adolescents. Teens are failing to learn the art of conversation, the reciprocal questions and answers that ultimately reveal one’s authentic self, allowing for deep, meaningful connection.

2)  Looks can be deceiving. When a girl has a large number of Facebook friends, it appears as though she is socially adept and well connected. Unfortunately, that large number often breeds a false sense of security. Bottom line: having hundreds of friends on a website is NOT equal to hundreds of friends in reality. Girls often misinterpret likes, comments and wall posts as meaningful social interactions, only to find their friendship to be non-existent in real life the next day at school. The confusion of online-only friendships is exacerbated by other arms length forms of communication like texts, IMs and tweets that lead girls to believe the friendship is real. And yet, it exists only in a world of technological marvels.

3)  Websites don’t cultivate relational expertise. When girls focus their attention on relationship building through social networking sites, they often fail to develop the truly authentic interpersonal skills that attract and reinforce meaningful, longterm friendships. For example, the ability to recognize the subtle social cues of a friend who shuts down when her parents are fighting at home is not easily ascertained through wall posts and instant messages. The social acuity required to identify a friend’s acting out behaviors as a sign of deep insecurity is not developed through hours of screen time. Sharing intimate thoughts and feelings, expressing personal perspectives and listening to those of another, honestly emoting in real time… these are the foundational principles of real friendship.

4)  Technology exacerbates confrontation. When girls fail to develop real life friendships, they also fail to develop effective conflict resolution skills. Hiding behind screens and pseudonyms, girls in conflict resort to name calling, secret spilling and backstabbing– behaviors most girls would never exhibit in person. Such tactics only escalate the conflict and create an environment of competitive one upping that destroys friendships for good. Worse yet is when girls fail to advocate for themselves after an online attack, simply swallowing their feelings altogether. They are silenced by words on a screen, too embarrassed to verbally acknowledge their pain and suffering. Either way, girls circumvent significant acts of friendship like owning up to a mistake, expressing painful emotions, offering a meaningful apology, forgiving and moving forward. The friendship is quickly discarded and replaced by a new round of virtual thumbs ups.

The case for real life friendships is clear. It is crucial for girls to develop connections face to face, one on one, in the real world. Friendship fulfills some of our most vital needs for support, empathy, understanding, compassion, appreciation, acceptance… the list goes on and on. Social networking certainly provides some fun and entertainment. But at the end of the day, Facebook can never replace the joy of a high five, the warmth of a smile or the power of an embrace.

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