What are some of the common dangers of social media and what can my spouse and I do to safeguard our marriage against them? Are there any tools available that can help provide accountability and safeguards?
There are a number of potential pitfalls, and all of us, married couples included, need to be aware of the risks before we jump into online social networking with both feet. Every new technological development has both pluses and minuses, and, as author Neil Postman observes, it is not always clear in the beginning who the winners and losers will be (Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, p. 10). Here's a list of some of the most noteworthy drawbacks associated with social media:
- Virtual Reality vs. Actual Reality. So-called virtual reality is an ever-present aspect of all forms of cyber-culture. Once they log on to Facebook or Twitter, some people have a tendency to slip into a different psychological "zone." Without even realizing it, they can assume the attitude of another person living a "parallel life" in a "parallel world."
- Anonymity. Closely connected with this last point is the potential for secrecy and anonymity that characterizes most Internet-based activities. Ironically, social media such as Facebook can be as faceless and nameless as the individual user chooses to make them.
- Voyeurism, Exhibitionism, and Narcissism. When users have the luxury of hiding behind an assumed identity or a veil of anonymity, the effect in some instances and with some personalities is to encourage a sense of license. This can lead to all kinds of unsavory online social behaviors, including "stalking" spying, unwarranted boasting, deception, misrepresentation of facts, and self-promotion.
- Vulnerability to Predators and Opportunists. In some cases, narcissism and exhibitionism can actually become a form of victimization. Facebook users who fail to pay proper attention to the privacy and access features of their accounts can open themselves up to the schemes of advertisers, charlatans, Ponzi artists, and even dangerous sexual predators.
- Potential Loss of Privacy. Once you've put something on Facebook, you have no way of controlling the forwards and second-postings to which it might be subjected by "friends" and "friends of friends." So think before you act. (We might also mention that the membership terms grant to Facebook the legal rights to all material posted by its users.)
- Best Foot Forward. Many people have a tendency to reveal only the best and most attractive aspects of their lives to Facebook friends. Harmless as this is in most instances, it can potentially give rise to conflicts, jealousy, envy, covetousness, and rivalry. It can also lead to discontent and depression when photos of your friends' new baby or recent trip to Hawaii leave you with the feeling that "other people" get all the breaks.
- Too Much Too Soon. The speed, brevity, ease, and immediacy of online connections can sometimes create the illusion of genuine friendship where in fact there is nothing more than a very superficial and artificial "virtual" link with another person. The formation of real friendship requires time, patience, shared experience, and lots of personal, face-to-face interaction.
- Isolation. When social media are allowed to replace real-life interaction, they may encourage the user to withdraw into a "virtual" world of his or her own making. If permitted to progress too far, this tendency may even become pathological.
This is not the end of the story, of course. When used with wisdom and discernment, cell phones, computers, iPads, and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can be effective tools for strengthening marriages, building up other people, and creating a healthy sense of community among couples. You can protect yourself against the pitfalls described above by implementing the following list of "best practices":
- Shared passwords. Couples using Facebook and similar social media should share passwords and maintain an "open door policy." Their respective profiles should make it clear that they are married to one another. Icons, photos, and visual images should be designed to remind visitors of the marital relationship.
- Wise use of access features. In setting up their Facebook profile, married couples ought to think carefully about the amount of personal information they'd like to include and the details they want to provide.
- Establish boundaries. Before launching out into the world of social media, husbands and wives should sit down together and discuss their expectations. What are each partner's thoughts and feelings about appropriate online interaction with persons outside the circle of their marriage and immediate family? What are the ground rules for accepting friend requests? How much time should they be spending on Facebook? It helps to agree on boundaries and guidelines up front.
- Give careful thought to the number of devices you use to access your account. Individuals who lack discipline may end up wasting a lot of time online if they're set up to access Facebook via phone, laptop, and iPad, as well as on a home computer. On the other hand, people who are effective time managers may actually save time by using a portable device to access social media during opportune and less-intrusive moments, such as while sitting in the doctor's waiting room. Doing so may actually create more "face-to-face" time with family and friends. The key is to use the tools available to serve your purposes and strategies rather than allowing them to dominate you.
- Encourage and build up. Spouses need to look upon social media as means of encouraging and building one another up, not only in private communication but also in messages intended for a broader audience. In other words, they can compliment one another on Facebook much as they might compliment one another at a party or social gathering.
- Go slow. It's easy to let the speed and easy access of online communication influence the tone and character of our human interactions. Don't jump to unwarranted conclusions about "relationships" with "friends" who are really nothing more than cyber-acquaintances.
- Post with discernment. A good general rule of thumb is, "Don't post anything on Facebook that you wouldn't care to see printed on the front page of the newspaper."
- Stay grounded. If you're the sort of person who tends to "zone out" in cyberspace, there are some simple things you can do to stay grounded in reality. A picture of your spouse or a symbol of your faith (e.g., a cross) positioned beside the keyboard can remind you of who you are and what you're about. Timers may be a good idea for kids. Some families find that a policy of a living-room-only or kitchen-only computer use helps to provide some healthy mutual accountability.
- Exemplify good practices. When children are part of the picture, mom and dad should be careful to model all these "best practices" for the kids in their own use of social media.
There are a number of Internet tools available that can help you stay on the straight and narrow. Covenant Eyes, for instance, is an accountability software that provides selected individuals with a report of your online activities. Net Nanny is an Internet control software program that can be used to protect the entire family. For additional ideas and recommendations, we suggest you take a look the Safety Resources page of our website.
If you need help applying these suggestions to your personal situation, don't hesitate to call and speak with a member of our Counseling department. They can also provide you with a list of licensed Christian marriage and family therapists practicing in your area.