Social networks in the real world are defined in terms of relationships between people, and may include any number of descriptive terms: employee, co-worker, business associate, partner, spouse, ex-wife, mother, fishing buddy, audience, fan, etc. Social networking websites use different terms to refer to relationships between its members, and these terms tend to reflect the nature of the relationship encouraged by the site.
On Facebook, we become friends when one of us extends a “friend request” and the other accepts the request. At that point we have equal access to the information shared by the other. On Twitter I have followers who subscribe to read my posts (called tweets). I don’t have to know anything about my followers for them to read my posts, and I don’t have to follow them back if I don’t feel like it. On LinkedIn, we make connections (rather than becoming friends), presumably because our professional relationships don’t have to rise to the level of friendship in order for us to derive value from the relationship.
We’ve already talked about the dangers of making connections online with people you don’t know in real life. And even when you know someone, there’s a risk of reestablishing a long lost friendship that maybe was best left in the past. A significant risk for married adults involves rekindling an old flame and thereby threatening your marriage.
Facebook use has been cited in 1 of 5 U.S. divorce cases, according to a recent survey among American marriage lawyers. Moreover, more than 80 per cent of divorce lawyers reported a rising number of people using social media for extramarital affairs, according to the survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers […] One spouse connects online with someone they knew from high school. The person is emotionally available and they start communicating through Facebook. Within a short amount of time, the sharing of personal stories can lead to a deepened sense of intimacy, which in turn can point the couple in the direction of physical contact.7
A number of factors may allow a teenager to become involved in a relationship with a predator, starting with discontent at home. The first is that kids who are happy at home are less vulnerable to inappropriate online relationships because they are emotionally fulfilled and don’t need what the online relationship is providing.
A second factor concerns the tendency of the human mind, in the face of missing information, to fill in details positively or negatively, depending on one’s disposition. When teens foster relationships online, they inevitably lack significant detail about the other person. Their emotional need for the relationship leads them to fill in missing details in unrealistically idyllic terms. It is relatively easy for young people to become way too emotionally involved online and for that to become a significant problem in their emotional development and in the health of their dating relationships.
Lest we paint a picture that only teenagers struggle with this, the same issue applies for the old folks as well. Imagine a husband or wife unhappy in their marriage and discontent at home who then stumbles upon an old flame on Facebook. It’s easy to fill in missing details with glowing superlatives despite really knowing nothing about what they’ve actually become over the previous decade or two. But maybe the old flame is looking pretty good, so it becomes surprisingly easy to slip into an inappropriate relationship online that may escalate into physical contact.
On the flip side, Facebook has created an unprecedented positive impact on the ability to rekindle beneficial relationships with old friends. My own experience is somewhat poignant in this respect. One of my favorite mission companions has a very common name, the kind that might occur dozens of times in every large city in America. I talked to him on the phone the day I arrived home from Italy in 1982, and then lost contact. I tried from time to time to track him down via telephone directory assistance, but the overhead was just too extreme. When the World Wide Web showed up in the mid-1990s, I occasionally used some of the archaic web search tools of the day to try and track him down, but the noise was still overwhelming. Then Facebook showed up and the landscape changed. More than 25 years after my last conversation with this good friend from the mission, I received a friend request from him on Facebook! It was thrilling to make contact after so long, and we were able to reconnect and catch up on the past quarter century. Since then, we have reestablished our friendship from the mission and keep in regular contact. What a blessing!
Like anything, the ability to create friendships online may be horribly destructive or incredibly constructive, depending on a number of factors. In either case I don’t believe technology is to blame for our behaviors – it simply accelerates the pace of communication and provides an increased level of opportunity for interaction. While it accelerates the opportunity for evil, it also accelerates the opportunity for good.