Breaking up with time-consuming Facebook 

As the children in my extended family have begun entering the teenage years, I’ve been quietly preparing to help them through the inevitable shocks of adolescence: The first love, the first heartache, the first break-up.

A 15-year-old relative just ended her first serious relationship, and, after long, consoling conversations, we think she’s going to be okay. She’ll have more time to herself, more time for schoolwork, and she won’t find herself obsessively clicking on a little red button every couple of minutes.

Reader, the girl has broken up with Facebook. Oh, the pathos! And oh, what fortitude it has taken!

Facebook loves to friend you. It loves to hold you, and keep you, and tell you things you want to hear. It makes you feel popular and validated. You are never alone; you are always wanted. With one click, your relationship is magically refreshed.

In 2008, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 65 percent of American teenagers use social networking sites; by now, that number is probably much higher. This particular girl joined Facebook a year ago, and, as infatuation will, it consumed her.

She’d run up to her room as soon as she got home, followed by sardonic comments from her mother about her Facebook habit. Equally acerbic comments would float back down the stairs about her mother’s custom of checking e-mails before she has even removed her coat.

Nothing untoward took place on her Facebook page (her parents checked). Her grades stayed strong. So the adults in her life didn’t see any urgent reason to intervene. She hadn’t become a compulsive “checker,” who lives for Facebook. But, she realized, her ever-obliging cyber-beau was starting to take over her life.

“You could argue that modern technology is designed to make our lives easier,” she told me, “but my life isn’t easier when I’m spending three hours a night on Facebook.”

It wasn’t constant, she explained, but it was continual. She might be writing about Macbeth, but Facebook would be there too, in the background. Every few minutes, it would break her concentration, like a chatty friend at the library, by flashing a red button on her screen.

“I mean, a little red button, there’s nothing people like more than pushing buttons!” she laughed. “So you click on it, and you find out that someone has written on your wall. The etiquette is that you’re supposed to then write on their wall, and they respond, and then you have to respond. In the end, you’re in this written conversation that everyone can read and it’s 10 p.m. and you still haven’t done your English paper!”

It was a night like that, she says, that made her realize she needed some space, a separation, even.

But Facebook is a jealous lover, and, as this young lady is finding, it does not want to let her go. It doesn’t want to let anyone go; the site recently blocked a Netherlands-based outfit called Web 2.0 Suicide Machine that enables people to sever all their social networking ties (and replaces their profile picture with a noose). This girl didn’t want to commit e-suicide, she just wanted out of Facebook. Eventually she found out how, and pressed delete.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Facebook asked her anxiously, in a series of pop-ups. It e-mailed, promising that she could just log in again and use her account, really she could.

The site turned needy, then coquettish. It begged her to explain why she was leaving (“I spend too much time on Facebook,” she replied.) It e-mailed photos of her Facebook friends, with plaintive messages, “Katie will miss you! Matt will miss you!”

“The machine was trying to make me feel guilty. It was making up the emotions of my friends!” she said incredulously, adding, “It’s like being stalked by a computer.”

A week later, she hasn’t reached closure. Facebook is holding out hope for two more weeks that she’ll be lonely, maybe, and want to come back.

“Occasionally I get bursts where I want to go on again, but it’s actually less important to me than I thought it was,” the teenager said.

Yet like someone who has broken up with an actual person rather than a networking site, she keeps catching glimpses of Facebook’s silhouette, in, as it were, the crowd.

“I keep seeming to see that little red box every time something flashes on my computer screen, like a phantom,” she said, “And I have an urge to click on it.”

Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.

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Meghan Cox Gurdon

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