By Kimberly Yavorski
Having “the talk” with your teenagers is more important than ever. The talk about social media, that is, and how it impacts all of us. And before it gets a foothold in their lives, your teenager should hear this message from you: Facebook is not real life.
We’re grownups, and even we fall for the illusion of Facebook perfection. We tend to look up people we knew in high school and see what they are doing now. We watch with envy as they take vacations to exotic locales and post pictures in fabulous clothes, driving expensive new cars. We read about their wonderful marriages, their polite, accomplished children and their awesome jobs. And then we look at our own imperfect lives, and compare them, often unfavorably.
Facebook Is Not Real Life
Now think of your college-bound teenagers. Though they probably know more about social media than you do, they are also more influenced by it. This shapes their expectations of college life. In some ways, they have a much better sense of what to expect than we did.
Your child may have older friends or siblings who have already gone away to college, and your teen may stay in touch with them through Facebook. They have access to college students who can answer questions about college life (if your teenager thinks to ask them). They have easy access to photos to guide them on how people dress and decorate dorm rooms. They are comfortable in the knowledge that they will get to know their roommates before move-in day, even if it is only through “Facebook stalking.”
Once your child has been accepted to college, he or she will likely be invited to join a Class of [graduation year] Facebook group. There will be friend requests from others who have been accepted, and maybe some students who are already there. (Here, your rule about not accepting requests from people you don’t know in real life goes right out the window. Your teenagers will argue that they will know them in real life, next fall, and argue that these relationships are “safe.” Any arguments to the contrary will likely be shrugged off, and the response will be that next year you won’t know what they are doing anyway.)
With these new friendships, your child’s world will be opened to many new influences. Most colleges pull students from a wide area, many from the entire country and maybe even the world. In some ways, social media is helpful in bringing these students together, as there is almost a guarantee of having friends before setting foot on campus.
Once at school, though, they may feel they have been duped. College is not all they thought it was. Why? Because they looked to Facebook as an accurate representation of what college life would be like. On Facebook, everyone is social all the time. There are parties, trips, and events that keep kids busy 24/7. Reading fifty pages in a night or writing twenty-page papers doesn’t make for a good status, so that is left out. Being lonely or homesick is not mentioned on Facebook. Facebook is a place to curate only the good. And our kids can be caught off guard, still believing that others’ lives are Facebook-perfect, while their own is not. They may not have enough life experience yet to look at these photos and be able to remind themselves that Facebook is not real life.
In 2011, The American Academy of Pediatrics linked excessive use of social media sites such as Facebook to instances of adolescent depression. Similarly, a 2014 academic article, Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage Is Linked To Depressive Symptoms, looked at two research studies and concluded that “people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel badly when comparing themselves to others.” The authors found this to be “especially true for college students, since they may still be struggling to establish their identities apart from their families, and, consequently, may be more susceptible to peer influences.”
Sometimes we—even adults—need a reality check. Facebook is not real life. To illustrate, try an experiment, and considering doing it together with your teenager. Pretend for a moment that you are not you. Look at your personal Facebook postings over the past year. Is this a real depiction of what life was like? If you are like most of us on Facebook, your life looks like it has been pretty good. You may have photos of family celebrations, announcements of accomplishments (yours or your children’s) and maybe even some vacation photos of everyone having fun. Does this mean that you spent your entire year like this? Of course not. Even adults can occasionally forget that Facebook is not real life.
There are many bits of wisdom we want to impart before we send our children off to fly, including several standard “talks” parents tend to give before their teens leave home. Now we need one more: Add a “Facebook talk” to the list.
Kimberly Yavorski is a freelance writer with a passion for learning, especially about history and natural science. She writes frequently on the topics of parenting, the outdoors and current events. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.