This week in class one of my professors told the story of an anthropologist who documented the habits and practices of a remote, South Pacific tribe. According to this anthropologist, the tribe was like a modern day Eden, devoid of problems and, remarkably, sin. He then concluded that the tribe evidenced the unimportance–and even danger–of sending missionaries. As he saw it, this idyllic people needed only to be left alone to live in peace, free from Western influence and corruption.
The anthropologist’s findings were applauded and studied by his colleagues for years. However, another anthropologist later visited the tribe and met with very different results. Unlike the society described by the first anthropologist, the second anthropologist found a people engaged in barbaric practices that included pedophilia and the mutilation of women in the tribe. Far from being a preserved paradise, this tribe had numerous vices. Sin was clearly present.
So what accounts for the discrepancy between the two anthropologists? Probably a combination of factors. Perhaps the first anthropologist was looking for evidence to support his theory. Perhaps he only saw what he wanted to see. Or, the tribe may have been on their “best behavior,” so to speak. They may have been giving the anthropologist what he wanted to see. Perhaps it was even a combination of those factors. Either way, it a helpful illustration that appearances are not always what they seem.
This story made an impression on me because, oddly enough, it reminded me of several recent studies published on the connection between Facebook and depression. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), some children now appear to suffer from “Facebook depression.” In an article for Time, this phenomenon was described as primarily affecting “children who may be at risk for social isolation or poor self-esteem and spend a significant amount of time on the social-networking site may become depressed.”
The article goes on to explain that “the constant barrage of their peers’ happy status and photo updates and friend connections may present a skewed view of reality that could make at-risk kids feel that they don’t measure up.”
Sound familiar? Judging from my own experience, children aren’t the only ones suffering from Facebook envy and the deflated self-esteem it can cause.
Along that vein, Stanford University conducted a study on adults and the findings were rather similar to those on children. In a separate article published by Time, author Maia Szalavitz summarized the findings as follows: “People consistently underestimate how often other people have negative emotions, while overestimating how often they have positive ones.” According to this study, which only surveyed college students, “students underestimated their peers’ negative feelings by 17%, while overestimating their positive emotions by 6%.”
Not unlike the idealistic anthropologist who only saw the good in the tribe, studies show that we gather a similarly skewed picture of others based on the images projected on Facebook. A funny combination of performance for and false assumptions about others blend together so that we see all the good without any of the bad. This dynamic not only impacts self-perception, but it also pressures us to feed back into the cycle. If given the choice, we would all prefer to be the object of envy, and many of us work hard to be.
Given the real emotional impact that Facebook is causing in Americans, how should Christians respond? If posting our happy memories creates a stumbling block for others, should we share them in a different format? Should we limit the sharing of intimate moments to our closest friends and family, rather than broadcasting them to all? Should we stop putting up pictures altogether?
In the face of these questions there is a temptation to take an all or nothing approach. However, these are not the real questions we should be asking. There are two alternative questions that better direct our thinking on this complicated topic:
1. Are you loving your neighbor? Given the reality that Facebook can hurt people, consider whether your pictures and status updates are loving to others. If you have a friend who just suffered a miscarriage, is it loving to post oodles of photos of your newborn each week? If your good friend is struggling with singleness, is it loving to constantly post status updates about your date nights or how wonderful your marriage is? While those life circumstances are certainly worth celebrating (I personally LOVE seeing pictures of my friends’ babies since I live far away from so many of them!!) we do need to be thoughtful about how we rejoice and share personal information. At times, private websites are a better option than indiscriminately posting to everyone.
2. Are you believing truth or lies? A counter-balance to the above point is the importance of taking responsibility for your own thought life. Scripturally speaking, we know that sin prevents everyone from having the “perfect life” they desire. Everyone struggles with pain and hardship, whether it is obvious or hidden. No matter how happy or blissful another person’s life may appear, they still need the loving grace of Christ and the friendship and support of the church. So as you process the lives you see on Facebook and make assumptions about them, compare your assumptions to the truth of Scripture. Also compare your response to the commands of Scripture. In relation to your neighbor, do you find yourself in a position of coveting, or one of loving intercession?
I log onto Facebook many, MANY times a day, so I won’t pretend it isn’t difficult to monitor my motives each time. Perhaps that is an indication I should log on less. But regardless of how often you use Facebook and other social media, they are new tools that we are only just now learning to use Christianly, so we must work to handle them with caution, wisdom and discernment.