Facebook is a powerful tool for connecting people and ideas. Members of the site have been shown to foster more close relationships with others, scoring several points higher on tests of companionship and emotional support in a 2011 Pew Research Center study of Americans' Internet habits. And more than ten percent of the entire world are citizens of the Facebook nation.
But we're less and less charmed by it these days. (Seriously, we've done a lot of complaining.) What was once an exclusive club is now an indomitable presence in many people's lives. But it doesn't have to be -- here are 10 guidelines people who have healthy relationships with Facebook live by.
There's a notion in social psychology called the Law of the Instrument, Robert Simmermon, Ph.D., a media psychologist, told The Huffington Post. "If you give a child a hammer," he said, "they will find something to tap." The Internet and our personal devices give us all the tools we need to look up each other's social information, and the urge to do so is natural. "I think there's a little 'stalker' in all of us," Simmermon said.
But depending how much we give in to our silent sleuthing impulses, we may be doing ourselves a disservice. A 2013 German study of 584 people showed that those who used Facebook primarily to browse -- not to communicate -- were particularly at risk of emotional pain afterward. As tempting as it is to gawk at other people's lives by passively browsing social media, unless we need to check an event or message a friend right then, we might do better to start our own conversations offline.
"FOMO" -- the fear of missing out -- is the oft-cited acronym many social media users claim as the reason they can't stop checking their Facebook feeds. (What if all your friends are hanging out without you? What if they're out having fun while you're eating cookie dough on the couch?) Those who feel antsy and miserable because they haven't logged on to Facebook in a while would do well to take a deep breath and remember that sometimes, missing out is good for us. Get ready for this acronym -- JOMO: the joy of missing out.
"People are beginning to take stock of their lives and take time out for themselves," Danny Penman, Ph.D., explained to HuffPost UK. "If you are not the one calling the shots, mobile tech can easily take over your life and leave you burnt out and broken." Wellness gurus suggest we be more mindful of how we're actually spending our time rather than our mere perception of how we're spending our time.
As former Facebook members point out, it's just as easy to call, send a text or write an email -- the latter of which tends to be seen as a less offensive workday activity than peeking at your News Feed. "When something major happens," ex-Facebook user Lauren Perry, a college advisor, told HuffPost, "I send a 'family and friend' email. We use a lot of 'reply all.'" Another formerly avid Facebook user told HuffPost that while Facebook is great for reconnecting with old friends, he prefers to connect via phone.
"I really don't feel left out," explained Steve Zarate, a project manager in York, Pa. "If something comes up in conversation with my friends about Facebook or someone's status I might pop on there to check it out just to understand the conversation better, but that typically doesn't happen."
A News Feed full of 500-plus different people's updates is totally overwhelming.
In fact, anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar famously concluded that the human brain has a finite capacity to process the interpersonal connections afforded by social networks. That number is surprisingly small -- just 148. By Dunbar's estimation, we're not built to keep up with hundreds or thousands of "friends," but rather just the people we communicate with most often. Indeed, a 2014 Oxford University study of social networks found that users had a general "one in, one out" policy, conscious or not, meaning that new relationships tended to steal attention away from older ones in order to keep our brains from melting down from information overload.
If you're worried you spend too much time hanging out on friends' walls every day, it could be best to decide on a certain amount of time you can reasonably devote to Facebook and try your best to stick to it. For Google Chrome users, there's even a handy extension to help -- it's called Time Tracker, and it will make you feel like a procrastinating fool. But this is how we grow.
Time magazine has also developed a tool to estimate the number of minutes, hours and days you've spent checking Facebook since you created an account. (This writer spent a total of 32 days, four hours and two minutes on the site since joining in 2006 -- most of it undoubtedly concentrated in her college years.)
Science has actually suggested that people have the capacity to talk about politics online without completely losing it. No, seriously -- a pair of researchers completed a study in 2009 that showed Facebook as an effective platform for debate. While some discussion among disagreeing parties was found to be uncivil, the large majority -- 75 percent -- was found to be "devoid of flaming."
But even the dissenting opinions are valuable, Simmermon told HuffPost. Reading various viewpoints "gives us a flavor of what's happening out there" in far-flung corners we might otherwise never consider. "It makes the world smaller -- very much smaller."
Facebook's privacy settings are notoriously confusing. So confusing, in fact, that a 2013 Carnegie Mellon study of more than 5,000 users from 2005 to 2011 found an increase in the amount of information shared online in spite of desire to protect personal privacy. The privacy settings available "may increase members' feelings of control," the researchers noted, but these perceptions might not be accurate.
Privacy -- and feeling unsafe online -- is one of users' biggest complaints against Facebook. Fortunately, there's a lot of helpful information about how to optimize your settings. AVG Privacyfix is one good tool. The free program pings users when their privacy settings are weak, leading to pages where controls can be tightened up. Facebook itself also recently implemented its own Privacy Checkup notifications, which pop up when a user hasn't updated privacy settings in a while and serves as a gentle warning against oversharing.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to hear that Facebook doesn't accurately represent the lives of your "friends." Every item posted by the site's millions upon millions of users -- from highbrow articles to flattering photos -- is a choice, made to paint themselves in the most positive light. (And the unflattering ones? Un-tagged.)
"If a Martian were to come down and sit in front of Facebook," Simmermon told HuffPost, "they would think we were the happiest creatures in the universe." We "brand" ourselves on the site, he said, editing our pages to fit our idealistic visions.
One early adopter likened it more to "online community theater" than any sort of reality. "For young people," she wrote, "Facebook is yet another form of escapism; we can turn our lives into stage dramas and relationships into comedy routines." The site seems to have always blurred lines between truth and fiction, but, as one Reddit user explained, "It's hard not to compare your own life to the highly edited versions of other people's lives that you see on Facebook."
In the German study of emotional response to Facebook use, researchers found that even those who actively communicated online felt more jealous of others and frustrated or dissatisfied with themselves. As a response, some admitted to intentionally creating posts that paint themselves in the best light, highlighting things such as work-related achievements or their good looks.
Less time on Facebook, inversely, begat stronger feelings of satisfaction -- several other studies have shown similar results. The next time you catch yourself looking through a college dorm-mate's wedding album and wondering if you'll ever find true love, remember that about half of all marriages now end in divorce. Er, we mean, remember that those people have ups and downs in their lives, too.
In a 2013 study of 263 middle school, high school and college students, technology presented such a distraction that subjects attempting to work averaged less than six minutes on-task before switching to social media or texting. Furthermore, those who tended to log onto Facebook while studying had lower GPAs than those who restrained themselves. A separate study showed a similar correlation between Facebook use and lowered grades in college students, even while other forms of digital communication -- IM and email -- didn't seem to have an effect.
Luckily, developers have already created apps that promise to save us from ourselves, at least where social media distractions are concerned. SelfControl, for example, lets you block specific websites on a Mac for up to one day -- and it knows all your tricks. Even deleting the app from your device won't let you access forbidden sites until time is up.
Specific rationale for wanting to quit the site altogether varies -- some say it's too unnatural to discover so many personal details about people online, others say it's their own personal details they don't want third parties, namely advertisers, to see. And while some who try a Facebook-free life might end up crawling back, others are happier without it.
"I was wasting a lot of time on the site and it was neither productive nor enriching," blogger Rachel Jonat explained. "[Quitting] helped me focus more on the people in my life that really matter: close friends, family, my kids and myself." Although Jonat noted that she is sometimes left out of plans made over Facebook, she said she hasn't had trouble keeping herself as busy as she likes.
But in a recent Reddit thread on the subject, one user suggested what we get out of Facebook is, at least in part, up to us. "You can choose what kind of experience you want to have," wrote Redditor parker214. "If you want to not deal with people who you don't actually have any relationship with, you can delete them. If you don't like certain kinds of posts, you can hide them."
All images via Getty.