Social media has risen to prominence in society’s use within the last decade, and has infiltrated the lives and relationships of most people. As a result, Facebook, as a specific social medium, increases the dissatisfaction with interpersonal relationships among Christian female young adults. This leaves Christians in somewhat of a quandary as they learn how to respond to Facebook’s influence in their lives in order to feed healthier interpersonal relationships that will adequately foster biblical fellowship.
Understanding the Medium
The technology of today presents a constant online presence. Laptops and smart phones have made Internet connectivity portable, allowing people to always be connected to their “friends,” usually no matter where they are. Through Facebook, they always have the option of “poking,” “liking,” “commenting” and “posting” in response to what they read about their friends or what they experience with them. Consequently, this perpetual individual and solitary connectivity (for who uses Facebook as a communal activity?) is obviously beginning to have some bearing on interpersonal relationships. Several questions are beginning to be asked: what constitutes a friend? Does the quality of someone’s friendships increase or decrease because everyone is so easily connected? Is everyone as happy with Facebook as he appears to be?
Facebook was originally created to act as a directory of sorts. Students from Harvard University used the-then Thefacebook to post contact and other personal information. Its creator’s intention was to “build the best, simplest product that lets people share information as easily as they can” (Kirkpatrick 276).
Mark Zuckerberg’s initial social network endeavors began earlier than with Course Match and Facemash—one a helpful website and one an offensive one, respectively. Besides being an excellent computer programmer, with a knack for creating things that worked, Zuckerberg had a deep understanding of how people, particularly the young adults he was surrounded by, functioned. He knew they worked off of relationships, and so he catered to that. This is illustrated, of course, in both Course Match and Facemash as students were able to pick classes based on other students enrolled or rate who was more attractive (Kirkpatrick 23-26).
However, it was Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook that was a stroke of pure genius. Facebook, in its beginnings, was “a very basic communications tool, aimed at solving the simple problem of keeping track of your schoolmates and what was going on with them” (Kirkpatrick 29). When it was first launched, Kirkpatrick described Thefacebook as being “merely a piece of software—a platform for content created by its users” (Kirkpatrick 31). And it was this that helped make it so popular.
When Facebook launched in 2004, social media were no new concept. The general public had been exposed to it in such forms as MySpace and Friendster. But Facebook was the beginning of mass social media use. It moved from private use by elite Ivy League schools to global use that includes a multitude of languages, all in a few short years (Kirkpatrick 275). There is something about Facebook that compels all types of people—young, old, believers, and unbelievers—to use it. It has become the epitome of social media. (For more about Facebook’s creation, see here.)
Time could be spent probing all the demographics that use Facebook, but a more important question needs to be answered: what does Facebook do to the interpersonal relationships of young adults?
Understanding Young Adults
A young adult is someone between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. Young adults find themselves in an unusual time of life. Their independence is broadening as many of them go away to college and their relationships with their families change as they no longer spend most of their time at home.
The development psychologist Erik Erikson, who developed the eight stages of personality theory, believed that everyone’s personality continues to change throughout his or her life (Papalia 493). Young adults are placed in his sixth stage of psychosocial development which is known as intimacy vs. isolation. During this time, young adults are trying to find identities of their own after having left the families they grew up in and not yet having one of their own. Kathleen Berger says that “this crisis arises from the powerful desire to share one’s personal life with someone else” (Berger 503). In short, young adults are looking for relationships. This desire stems from the basic human needs of “affiliation, affection, interdependence, communion, belonging, love” (Berger 504).
The “intimacy” of Erikson’s theory refers to a relationship that will necessitate self-disclosure, sacrifice and compromise in some measure (Papalia 494). Friends are highly valued during young adulthood, especially for those without romantic partners, because they provide companionship, advice, support and self-expression which lead to vulnerability within a given friendship. Conversely, “isolation” refers to one who has no support system of any kind. It needs to be noted that Erikson once stated that “If young adults cannot make deep personal commitments to others, they may become isolated and self-absorbed” (Papalia 494).
Friendships are the base on which intimacy or isolation rest, and a study by counselor Julie Carbery and psychology professor Duane Buhrmester discovered that women are inclined to have more intimate friendships than men (Papalia 501).
A Case Study—For Want of Friends
To illustrate this, as well as to explore the interpersonal relationships of women at Moody Bible Institute as affected by Facebook, six undergraduate women were interviewed. This subset provided feedback about young adult Facebook-use and the subsequent responses of the users. Each interviewee is an emerging adult (between the ages of 18 and 25), and has been using Facebook since at least high school.
To begin, interviewees were asked to comment on the ways Facebook has affected their interpersonal relationships, and what this means for future friendships. Lauren, 18, said very simply that Facebook does increase her dissatisfaction in relationships primarily because she doesn’t get to see or talk to certain friends in person. She’s less inclined to call a friend when she can just “checkup” on her through Facebook. As a result, something is lost in the relationship when she no longer hears a friend’s voice or learns about her life over the phone. She added that relationships become “awkward and weird” when she knows about her friends’ lives without them telling her so. “It’s like reality TV but real people,” she said. She also thinks Facebook gives people the courage to say things they wouldn’t normally. This comes about because people are hidden behind computer screens and aren’t worried about other people’s feelings because they can’t see their reactions.
Twenty-three-year-old Carissa said she appreciates being able to send Facebook messages to friends whom she hasn’t seen recently, and make plans to get together. However, she generally thinks that Facebook creates a “false sense of connectivity,” and shallow friendships that lead to trivial conversations. Like Lauren, she thinks that Facebook makes people lose the courage to approach others face-to-face about something that they learned over Facebook; using Facebook chat and wallposts allows people to be more candid than they would be in person because facial expressions and body language are missing. In the spirit of focusing on face-to-face relationships rather than garnering a plethora of friends on Facebook, Carissa asked: “do we have to stay involved in so many people’s lives? Can we not let them go and pray the Lord will bring new friends and companionship to help them grow spiritually?”
Alissa, who is 20 years old, said it is possible to have a friendship over Facebook, but she has had to redefine what friendship is. “I like real friendships,” she said, defining a real friendship as one in which you actually talk to the person. By her definition, Facebook is misleading because no one has as many “real friends” as listed on a friend-page.
One particular interviewee, Chesney, 18, went on a rant about how Facebook has affected her relationships with men. She very plainly called it a “cop-out.” She complained that “[men] think that they can send you messages on Facebook and that counts as being a man and pursuing you. It doesn’t.” Additionally, she said that because this happens through technology, she can easily not respond and pretend it never happened—something she has actually felt guilty for doing.
As a missionary kid from Scotland, Kari, 18, has experienced heightened conflict between friends through Facebook. She recounted several times when she asked a particular friend to make plans to Skype together, but another friend saw her wallposts and complained that Kari neglected her. Kari said she gets annoyed when everyone can see everything she’s doing.
A Ruined Day
Interviewees were also asked if Facebook—as an inanimate website—has ever ruined their days. Chesney quickly admitted that this has happened several times after she’s logged on and found herself flipping through friends’ photos and statuses and then comparing herself to what she saw. Kari remembered one time when she posted a funny status and was very disappointed when she logged on later and didn’t have any notifications or “likes.”
Carissa resonated with these sentiments. She said: “There have been times when I’ve felt lonely so I’d go on Facebook to see if anyone was on chat. Then I ended up seeing what everyone else was supposedly doing and everyone having a good time, and then I just felt lonelier or like I was missing out on stuff. I end up getting sucked into Facebook.” Lauren thought in response of all the times when people are “dramatic, or rude, or sassy” and how that makes her mad for the rest of the day because those people are so annoying. Twenty-one-year-old Ashley said Facebook ruins her days when she learns sad or hard things (or sometimes even really good things) about her friends through Facebook rather than having them tell her in person.
Facebook and Fellowship
Among those interviewed, there was a general feeling of dissatisfaction about how Facebook affects relationships. Loneliness, irritation, and conflict all increase through Facebook, but the question must be asked, what does this mean for Christian fellowship? In his book, Mass Mediated Culture, Michael Real makes an astute observation and claims that “mass media contribute to a passive, internalized religion” (Real 199). And this religion “favors cultural stability and continuity over cultural innovation and adaptation” (Real 199).
With this, a dichotomy arises. On one hand is the passive, unwillingness to change religion, and on the other is the biblical mandate to commune with others. Christians are very clearly called to live in fellowship with one another as members of the same body of Christ (Acts 2:42). Believers have a unique relationship with other believers in that, through Christ, they share all things in common and are unified as brothers and sisters (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:27). Christians have the responsibility and privilege of rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
Keeping in mind that Christian fellowship moves beyond the physical bounds of a church building, Alissa very forthrightly said that “Facebook breeds a sense of fake fellowship.” She continued, “I would rather someone come knock on my door, or say ‘Let’s go out for coffee,’ than to say, ‘I’m praying for you,’ over Facebook. Because then I ask, ‘Are you really praying for me? Or just telling me you’re praying for me.’”
Carissa thinks Facebook promotes narcissism as opposed to fellowship. She said more narcissism leads to less caring for other people. Being open and honest is going to become a problem if people take the time to craft certain images of themselves for the Internet.
“I think it hurts fellowship,” Ashley said. She told how she has several friends who have iPhones and that sometimes when they’re all together, they’ll check their profiles. Ashley said this makes her laugh aloud because she thinks “we’re in community right now and face-to-face with people we care about. Because we’re so connected to this social network, we damage real-life relationships.
Lastly, Kari frowns upon Facebook’s effect on fellowship. Her home-church is currently experiencing a leadership change, and disgruntled members have taken to Facebook to proclaim their unhappiness over some things that they think need to be resolved. Kari thinks these members are voicing their opinions on the wrong forum, for she said, “If you’re having a problem, you should definitely go to the other person involved—it’s biblical. Indirectly, verbally abusing people over Facebook is an unhealthy way to release any tension. This leads to mistrust among church members.”
Although most of those interviewed have experienced Facebook’s ability to control their feelings, and make them discontent and dissatisfied with their friendships, most of them have no intentions of deactivating their accounts. Kari will keep hers because she uses it to stay in touch with her friends in Scotland. Ashley uses it to keep in contact with those who were involved in her previous internship in Ethiopia, and Carissa uses it because she is afraid that once she graduates people won’t contact her because they won’t see her profile around.
Despite the threat Facebook poses to the quality of friendships and the depth of fellowship, women continue using their profiles to satisfy the collegiate pull toward intimacy rather than isolation. And while Facebook divides the affections and thoughts of its users, with effects that won’t likely be reversed, there are those out there who can differentiate between genuine friendships and those belonging only to a social medium. These are the young adults the Church needs because they, like Ashley, will confidently say, “I can be your friend without being your Facebook friend.”
So this is not the end of true, biblical fellowship. Although dissatisfied, this generation largely understands that Facebook is an extension of relationships, not the extent of them (read more here). These young adults understand what it truly means to pray and study God’s Word together, as well as to share stories of God’s faithfulness in their lives. And with this, Millennial Christians can teach the next generation what it means to share life with one another in a God-honoring way.
Berger, Kathleen Stassen. The Developing Person through the Life Span. New York: Worth, 2008. Print.
Kirkpatrick, David. The Facebook Effect: the inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print.
Papalia, Diane E., Sally Wendkos Olds, and Ruth Duskin Feldman. Human Development. 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Print.
Real, Michael R. Mass-mediated Culture. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977. Print.
“Christian Fellowship | Bible.org – Worlds Largest Bible Study Site.” Free NET Bible and Thousands of Bible Studies | Bible.org – Worlds Largest Bible Study Site. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. <http://bible.org/article/christian-fellowship>.
Solis, Brian. “Social Media Is About Sociology Not Technology Brian Solis.” Brian Solis Defining the Convergence of Media and Influence. 07 Aug. 2007. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. <http://www.briansolis.com/2007/08/social-media-is-about-sociology-not/>.