Facebook Tips for the Over-50 Set

KUALA LUMPUR - AUGUST 7:Homepage of facebook.com August 7, 2011 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Guardian UK recently reported Mark
KUALA LUMPUR - AUGUST 7:Homepage of facebook.com August 7, 2011 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Guardian UK recently reported Mark Zuckerberg's sister Randy quits facebook to set up her own social website.

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. We love it when it connects us with the people we care most about and hate it when our Facebook friends over-share. They may be excited about the wonderful chocolate cake they're enjoying, but unless we're with them (and have an extra fork), we'd just as soon not have our mind cluttered with such minutiae of their daily lives.

The hate part of the love-hate relationship extends to our fear that our own privacy will be violated. We cringe at the thought of our bosses, neighbors or extended family learning the sometimes inglorious details about what we've been up to in our free time.

I'm going to take you through the basics of Facebook or, if you're a pro, review the finer points. You may still decide to give it a pass, but at least you'll be able to make an informed decision. If you're that Facebook pro, this refresher course can still help you maintain your social media edge.

First, let's see why it's worth giving Facebook a whirl. Most significantly, Facebook allows you to stay in touch with family. In our increasingly mobile world, we just don't see our families as many of us would like. If you're not on Facebook, and everyone else in the family is, then you'll be missing out on what the rest of the brood is doing, where they're living and what's on their minds. In past generations, when families lived in the same town for their entire lives, we didn't need Facebook to connect us with our kids, grandkids, siblings, parents and everyone else. The considered wisdom in the field of aging and family was that every older adult lived within 30 minutes of a family member (usually a child) and had weekly, if not daily, contact with that family member. We don't have that luxury anymore. Facebook provides one way to bring back those connections, at least in virtual form.

Facebook, secondly, can also benefit your mental abilities. There are literally hundreds of casual video games available as applications ("apps") through Facebook that you can play solo or with friends. These games exercise different parts of your mind such as your spatial abilities (matching similar tiles), verbal skills (Scrabble-type games) and decision-making skills (building cities, organizing schedules). You don't need to compete against other people, but if you like a good challenge, the opportunities abound.

The third reason to give Facebook a try is that it's a relatively easy way to stay in touch with friends, including people you haven't seen for a long time. No need to agonize over that letter you are supposed to write or that email that's been sitting unanswered in that inbox for weeks. Facebook allows you to stay in more-or-less continuous contact with your old friends. More if you like them, and less if you never were that crazy about them. Research on aging and friendship shows that as people get older, they value their older friends more and more. You can cultivate these long-standing relationships, allowing yourself to keep them fresh in both in your life and your memory.

Now let's turn to those Facebook tips:

1. Secure your privacy. Make sure you're screening out people you're not actively friends with as far as who can see your photos, updates, friends and personal data. The easiest way to do this is to make yourself "unsearchable." Once you've done this, you don't have to worry about "liking" a page (such as that of a store, a movie, or a genre of music). People will see that you're in the group, but your updates will not be visible to them.

2. Limit your personal revelations. That "oversharing" I referred to earlier can be a big problem unless you learn how to filter your status updates. Don't be that tedious Facebook user who releases each thought or experience you've ever had into cyberspace. To make sure that you keep those revelations in control, never go on Facebook when you've had a mood-altering substance (alcohol, drugs, etc.) or when you're super-tired.

3. Stay positive. Once in a while it's okay to make a sarcastic observation, especially if it's one that you think your Facebook friends will enjoy. Or if you've had a particularly bad experience and need a virtual hug, you'll be likely to receive one, as long as every post you make isn't in the Debbie Downer category. If you notice the Facebook posts that draw the most likes from people, they tend to be the ones that are upbeat. The same goes for comments on other people's posts. Don't feel that you need to make a snarky remark to some corny or inappropriate update that someone else shared.

4. Keep your audience in mind. You can definitely keep your posts private, but that's no guarantee that someone in your circle won't pass your public comment around to someone else. If that someone else is a boss, in-law, or ex, this could be embarrassing if not calamitous. Facebook posts should follow the same rule as email. Imagine that anyone could be reading it, not just your intended audience. That should put your inner censor to work.

5. Don't use Facebook during work hours (usually). Some people's jobs don't require that they segregate personal from work time on the computer, but in general, it's not good form to post anything during regular work hours. Looking like you have too much time on your hands, or that you lack attentional focus is not the best way to impress your supervisors, your clients, or even your family.

6. Don't use Facebook to rub your success in other people's faces. Following tip #4, above, where you keep your audience in mind, that audience will probably cheer you on for your successes, but they may get fed up if you do nothing but brag. Sure, you've got the best house, vacation, kids, spouse/partner, salary, etc. etc., but if you constantly remind everyone how much better you have it than they do, eventually they'll just hide your posts (they can do that, you know!).

7. Don't let other people's successes make you feel bad. The counterpart to tip #6 is that you don't start to get down on yourself when you see how much better others have it than you do. If things get unbearable, then it's your turn to hide their posts.

To sum up, the rules of Facebook aren't that different from the rules of everyday interactions with your friends and family. If you use Facebook wisely, you'll find it can enhance the quality of your online and real-life interactions with your friends and loved ones.

For more about Facebook faux pas, check out my Psychology Today blog "Protect Yourself from the Seven Sins of Facebook."