You are not alone… or are you?

“How well do you know her?” he asked me. “Well, we’ve met once, but we’ve been Facebook friends for a long time, so I can kind of keep up with her,” I responded. That sentence just flowed out of my mouth like I actually believed that because we were Facebook friends, I had some idea of what she was truly like. The conversation died as I lost myself in the horror of what I just said. Yes, I know that what I see friends post of Facebook is not representative of their true lives, but have I settled for allowing that “reality” to eclipse seeking a true, realistic characterization of my friends. I consume curated information about people through the modules curated by Facebook (photo albums, walls, etc.) – and as a side note, this goes for all forms of online social networking, but we’ll stick to Facebook because nearly everyone has at least seen it used – and allow that limited, carefully constructed identity to substitute for a true, in-person assessment of each “friend”. One may argue (incorrectly) that people share their lives fully on Facebook, but this is not the case. I recently struggled with sharing the diagnosis of my grandmother with leukemia on Facebook. Why? I’m not sure… maybe I didn’t want the sympathy or the negative attention. Maybe it was something else entirely, like I didn’t feel like that news fit in with the rest of the online image I’ve carefully curated.

Maybe it’s best this way? Maybe this is the solution we’ve been waiting for – where we can control our image. We can be out own PR pros! The problem is: we’re not all PR pros.

Lately, mainstream media has been abuzz about the alleged “Facebook Depression”. Let me first say that the people advocating its existence (the American Academy of Pediatrics) are not dubbing this a clinical depression, and “researchers disagree on whether it’s simply an extension of depression some kids feel in other circumstances, or a distinct condition linked with using the online site.” (Huffington Post article by Lindsey Tanner)

With in-your-face friends’ tallies, status updates and photos of happy-looking people having great times, Facebook pages can make some kids feel even worse if they think they don’t measure up.

It can be more painful than sitting alone in a crowded school cafeteria or other real-life encounters that can make kids feel down, [Dr. Gwenn] O’Keeffe [a Boston-area pediatrician and lead author of new American Academy of Pediatrics social media guidelines] said, because Facebook provides a skewed view of what’s really going on. Online, there’s no way to see facial expressions or read body language that provide context.

Now I will also emphasize I’m no psychologist and certainly have no experience in diagnosing children with anything, much less psychological ailments. I am, however, versed enough in online social environments to be able to speculate that this phenomenon is likely closely tied to the fact that we are in a period of time where building online identities is still a relatively new concept. We have not yet fleshed out what the “right way” to go about it is and we certainly haven’t fleshed out the way to deal with the skewed reality presented to us in the form of constructed identities of others. In fact, our adolescents engaging in these online environments are figuring it out for themselves, and sometimes the results are not what we would wish for our younger counterparts.

In real life, every day, parents teach their children social norms. “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” “You must respect your teacher…” “You must share your toys…” “Don’t say things like that, people will think…” “Don’t do that in public, people will say…” The problem is parents oftentimes don’t understand that they must now address two different “publics” with different rules of engagement. Out of necessity, kids are figuring it out for themselves, Lord of the Flies style.

The point is that naming ailments like “Facebook Depression” is putting attention where it needs to go, but isn’t prompting the action necessary to prevent the situation. We all have been conditioned to pretty well see the manipulation (well-meaning or not) of public identity by politicians in real life and online and advertisements by major corporations as a ploy to gain our trust or support, but the construction of online identities in online social environments has thus far largely escaped the gaze of the public. In order to take back the environments we have largely become dependent on, we must take the time to really understand (and to teach our children) how the ploys of old media have morphed into ploys for online media. Your “friends” are not always exactly who they show you they are, your favorite companies are most definitely not who they say they are, and if you’re smart, your profile is not exactly representative of you, either. If you’re not playing the same game, you are, in fact, alone.