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Facebook makes us outstanding – just like everyone else

Doug VanderLaan, Guest Columnist, reports Something’s gone wrong. I signed up for Facebook last week.

Since it was launched more than 15 years ago, I’ve been one of the last Facebook holdouts, clinging to the principles of higher social media and journalism standards, but, in a moment of weakness and relentless pressure from the rest of the world 10 days ago, I thought it might be good to come in from the cold. I’m tired of being an immigrant in a digital world populated by younger people who’ve grown up as natives in this vast and intimidating territory of technology.

What was I thinking?

They told me Facebook would take me to the far reaches of American culture and affluence, that it would introduce me to people I’d like and want to be more like. I’d have hundreds of new friends. Now, after 10 days, I think I’m part of the world’s largest high school.

It’s like the guy whose Facebook page last week gushed all over his wife wishing her happy birthday. Guess he couldn’t have gotten her a card or told her himself, but, with Facebook, he tells the whole world what a wonderful husband he is and what a special wife he has. Funny thing is, it’s the same couple I saw down at the local brewpub the other night who sat opposite each other on barstools at the table, got their phones out, and never spoke to each other through the whole meal. Lucky they’ve got Facebook to communicate with each other and enhance their image.

That’s why the whole thing reminds me so much of high school. From their research, neuroscientists and sociologists tell us that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses and self-reflect – is still in the midst of developing. Self-image and the identity we are working out is especially in flux.

“During times when your identity is in transition, it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability,” said Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University developmental psychologist who’s considered to be one of the country’s foremost researchers on adolescence. Our self-image from those years, in other words, is especially adhesive. So, too, are our preferences.

“There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” Steinberg said during the time of his study in 2013. “Yet, no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.”

So, that makes high school the time and the place from which most of us retain deep memories – and, possibly, self-image wounds, a subject writer Jennifer Senior explored in some depth for New York Magazine in a January 2013 piece titled “Why you never truly leave high school.”

“If humans really do feel things most intensely during adolescence, and if, at this same developmental moment, they also happen to be working out an identity for the first time – ‘sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are,’ as the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote – then it seems safe to say this: Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.”

“High schools are big, there has to be some way of sorting people socially,” said Robert Faris, a sociologist at the University of California-Davis. “Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest denominator stuff – looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports rather than the subtleties of personality … It’d be nice if kids could be captured by all their characteristics. But that’s not realistic.”

Now, through the brilliance of Facebook, there’s a way to restructure those hierarchies. As the last-chair clarinet player in my high school band – and the only male clarinetist – I can use Facebook to tell all those shame bullies how I now write guitar riffs for the Lynard Skynard Band (a bit of a stretch, but I do play guitar). No different a stretch, though, than the skinny kid who stumbled through cross-country in Red Ball Jets and horned-rim glasses and now is always a top finisher with the international runners at the Amway River Bank Run. Or the shy little library aide with acne and plain dresses who’s in the running for the Miss USA title.

A lot of us have scores to settle and hurts to overcome from adolescent memories seared into our minds. The problem is we can’t shut up talking about it. Now Facebook offers us a platform on which we can post only the best of our lives and truly live up to Garrison Keillor’s description of Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.”

Image campaigns do carry a cost, however, and provide further proof of Facebook’s propensity to replicate the ugliest of high school days. In March, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned of “Facebook depression” in children and teens who view status updates, wall posts, and photos that make them feel unpopular. Bullying, comparing themselves with others, and feelings of self-worth all can contribute to depression.

“While bullying and peer pressure were common problems for children and teens well before the advent of the Internet, social networking sites have made it impossible for kids to escape from these problems when not in school,” according to the report. “Internet access at home and on cellphones can expose an adolescent to these issues all day long – and even all night.”

For adults whose self-image formation came in those same years, I would submit that Facebook is still our high school.

My own recent wandering off the cliff into the Facebook morass came with the simple wish for more information about subjects in which I am interested. Maybe I’ll still find nirvana, but my 10-day sojourn isn’t taking me to intellectual heights, especially with the Millennial and Gen-Z crowd – the younger generation to whom I thought it would be good to connect.

“I asked the young gal who cuts my hair where she rates The Beatles,” posted a colleague of my generation. “She told me The Beatles were Paul McCartney’s best backup band.”

“That’s nothing,” another Baby Boomer who was wearing a Beatles T-shirt told me outside Walmart when I related the story to him. “There’s a kid at work who told me he went to hear a Wings concert and “that Paul McCarthy isn’t as good a guitarist as what you said he was.”

So, why would I want more friends like that? Or why have any friends, for that matter? A 10-day Facebook ordeal is telling me it’s time to head back to Curmudgeon Mountain. Like my old buddy Tom always told me, the more friends you have, the more weddings and anniversary parties, graduation open houses and funerals you have to go to.

Thank you, Facebook. I’m out of high school – for good.

 

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