Facing Facebook

This February 25, 2013 photo taken in Washington, DC, shows the splash page for the Internet social media giant Facebook. AFP
This February 25, 2013 photo taken in Washington, DC, shows the splash page for the Internet social media giant Facebook. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

Turns out that Facebook isn't exactly permanently changing the world like everyone thought - or feared. Not if you pay attention to what college students, the originally intended audience for Facebook, are saying. At least some of them are deciding to turn away from Facebook in favor of good old -fashioned face time. At least for a while.

In the Children and Mass Media class I teach at Tufts University, I always begin the semester by asking students to write a short paper. When I started teaching this class more than a decade ago, I asked students to write about their personal television histories. In the last several years, however, I've had to change the assignment to ask students to reflect about their personal media histories. Today's college students grew up in a world of wall-to-wall media that includes not only TV and film, but also the Internet and a panoply of social communications. Though I've never analyzed this systematically, I've found some very interesting trends over the years of giving this same basic assignment. Arguably the most prominent trend recently has been a growing recognition on the part of some present day college students that their dependence on Facebook might have its downsides.

It's not really surprising that today's college students are reflecting on how important social networking sites like Facebook are in their lives. A 2012 Pew Center Study found that the majority of Facebook users continue to be young people. But what I'm increasingly finding with my students is that more and more of them are worried that they spend too much of their time on Facebook, or that constantly communicating via Facebook has negatively affected their ability to communicate face to face.

"Facebook is a huge time sink," wrote one senior in my class this year. "I get depressed when I think about the fact that I check my Facebook when I get up, I check it several times throughout the day, and I'm on a lot at night" stated a sophomore.

My students are also noting in their papers that while Facebook has been great for keeping up with friends from high school, when it comes to communicating with friends who are just a short walk away, it seems strange to talk over Facebook. "When I realized that my roommate and I were making plans together via Facebook," said another sophomore, "I started thinking that this was a little crazy."

"It's too much pressure to feel like you constantly have to respond to every little thing someone posts on your wall," wrote one junior. "When I was in high school I thought that Facebook was the best way to communicate with friends," a senior reflected, "but now I think that it's made me less able to know how to have a real conversation with them."

The fact that my students' parents are increasingly present on Facebook also seems to be a disincentive for some of them. In fact, the fastest growing segment of the Facebook demographic is not college students, but people my age and older -- the parents and even grandparents of college students.

One of my students did a wonderful project a couple of years ago in which she wrote a series of rules about Facebook for parents. "Don't friend my friends" she admonished her own and other people's parents. " Don't use abbreviations you think are cool like 'LOL' -- sound your age! And never, ever give out information like you're picking me up at the airport at a particular time " she scolded. "You taught me never to give out personal information on line; why do you think that you're immune from this rule?"

Another student admitted that "when my parents think they can know about my life from things I post on Facebook, I know it's time to stop posting things on Facebook."

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that more and more of my students are reporting that they disable their Facebook accounts, at least for a while. "It's so liberating to throw off the constant demands of Facebook" wrote a senior. "It's amazing how much more time I have now, " stated another student.

My students are not alone in taking a Facebook vacation. This kind of voluntary hiatus from the Facebook frenzy has been reported nationally: a February 2013 Pew Center Report found that 61 percent of the current Facebook users polled in their sample reported that they had decided to "take a break" from Facebook for a period of several weeks or more.

In an op ed piece in the Boston Globe, columnist Joanna Weiss remarked that taking a vacation from Facebook is "...in some ways, a significant milestone in our growing relationship with social media." I think she's right. If my college students are voluntarily opting out of Facebook and realizing that they need more real face time with their peers, maybe it's time to start thinking carefully and critically about what this form of media is really good for, and where it may be lacking.