Looking for intimacy in the age of Facebook

Looking for intimacy in the age of Facebook
It was the only time I have ever allowed college students to have their cellphones out during class, in their hands no less.

"I want you to send a text to a friend," I told students in my course, "The Search for Intimacy in the Age of Facebook." "It has to be a text that shares your true feelings about something this friend has done or said that upset you but that you never said anything about. And you can't spend a lot of time agonizing over the wording. Say what you mean and hit 'send.'"

Their eyes bugged wider than when we had talked about hookups. "I'm really hating you right now," one student murmured, half-jokingly, her eyes locked in the oncoming headlights.

This dilating of my students' apertures, I've come to believe, is exactly what they need both in and outside the classroom if they are going to have the kind of success and fulfillment they desire. That's because the parts of their lives that truly matter to many of them during college - high marks and solid "A" social lives - are undermined by a widespread, constricting social anxiety that comes, paradoxically, from two of their greatest pleasures: texting and social media. A small but growing body of evidence suggests that excessive social media use can lead to an unhealthy fixation on how one is perceived and an obsessive competitiveness. Perhaps not surprisingly, this angsting can also lead to an unhealthy quest for perfection, a social perfection, which breeds an aperture-narrowing conformity.

I got my first glimpse of this at Towson University, where I teach. When I entered the classroom for the first time, I was baffled by glaring contradictions. Students arrived to class early yet they sat still, avoided eye contact and rarely took part in discussions. (If and when they finally spoke up, it usually came on the heels of another student's comment, and they invariably prefaced their remarks by saying, "First of all, I agree with what you just said," even if they contradicted their classmate in the next breath.) They handed in assignments (on time) that were formatted with the kind of attention to detail and design you might find in a shareholders prospectus. Yet the ideas darted in so many directions like dragonflies, never penetrating the surface.

I implored students to dig deeper, to mine the complexity and creativity of their ideas; they responded with fancy fonts and grammar check. Frustrated and looking for answers, I took the direct approach and asked students to journal about their risk-taking reticence. A few brave souls confessed to fearing classmates' judgment for saying or writing something "stupid" or, worse, something that "set them apart."

I remembered quiet classrooms from my college days, but this was different. Their avoidant silence ultimately hurt their grades and was part of the reason I developed the intimacy course.

More than another literature or creative writing course, these students needed a guide to the twisted subterranean landscape beneath their plugged-in social lives. Texting seemed like the logical place to drop our first pin. Even though it hasn't yet seduced researchers the way Facebook has, texting incites profound cultural unrest. Literally. Recent studies have found that many participants reacted like addicts when separated from their cellphones, while other studies have found that the "sleeping disorders" some high schoolers experience result from cuddling up with text messages all night.

My students have confessed to both these behaviors, admitting that they fear "falling out of the loop"  if they don't respond to friends' messages immediately, regardless of the hour. This is a generation so consumed with surface connection they will do anything to appear connected, including pretending to text when alone so they don't look, as one student said, "like a total loser without friends."

The brevity of texting, or textese, which calls for a carefully calculated language of emotionless evasion, sidesteps confrontation. In assigning the in-class texting experiment, I wanted students to take a risk and confront one of their biggest fears: stepping into the muck and mire of emotional candor and sincerity.

This was no small feat. One student wrote that she grew most "anxious about simply saying what was bothering me" to a friend. "Showing that I have a different opinion than her," she wrote, "made me worry that she would dislike me." Another student wrote about the quandary of whom to text: "I tried to think of someone I could text without ... losing a friendship."

Lightning-bolt epiphanies never surfaced, but students had stood apart from their crowd, even if on command. Many of them had liked the way that felt. For a day I basked in this hopeful afterglow.

And the next morning I walked into the classroom.

Students sat in the darkened room, poring over Facebook on their laptops and smartphones.

The experiment's luster had faded. It was inevitable, really.

Studies show that American college students spend, on average, three hours texting and an hour and 40 minutes on Facebook every day.

One of the more recent studies centers on the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale: Norwegian researchers have observed that excessive Facebook use leads to higher rates of anxiety and social insecurity.

As my students roundly admit, much of their time on Facebook is spent on their profiles. They edit, Photoshop and solicit the "right" messages and photographs for their profiles with an obsession worthy of a lengthy research paper. The ultimate goal? Racking up "Likes." In the world of Generation Y, that means conforming to the narrow lens of perceived perfection - mugging like a celebrity at parties, hanging with A-list hookups. Such photos illustrate the Facebook code: "Likes" are the new extraordinary. God help the poor soul who bleeds pedestrian, vulnerable feelings like sadness or melancholy onto her or someone else's wall. As a student recently observed to a sea of nodding heads: "That kind of panhandling for attention is just pathetic. It has no place on Facebook."

On the heels of this armored bravado, I asked students to take on another experiment, one that challenged their Facebook ethos: to eat in a crowded university dining room without the company of school work, laptops or smartphones. Or friends. Then they had to journal about it.

The results were sobering. "I gathered my things and bolted out the door," one student wrote about her reaction once she finished her meal. "I was glad that I could feel like I belong somewhere again. ... What I hated most was being alone and feeling like I was being judged for it." Another student echoed this experience. "By not having my phone or laptop to hide behind, it was amazing how self-conscious I felt," she wrote.

I shared the goal of this experiment with my students recently. Most of their eyes and mouths narrowed as they suggested that I had missed my mark, ignoring the candor in their reflections. Except for one student. She confessed to what could be the anthem for this porcelain generation: "I realized something disturbing after doing this. If I don't feel connected with others, I automatically feel alone, unpopular, less confident." A sea of eyes jarred open in unexpected solidarity.

© 2013, The New York Times News Service


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