Facebook's Friendship Trap DDAT

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Facebook's Friendship Trap

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Facebook is losing its magic. Last week, showing signs of desperation, the social networking site changed its privacy settings in response to an outcry from users over how it was sharing their data with commercial companies. After spending some time on the site myself, scoping the reactions of Facebookers (the majority of whom slam the company) I'd say it has done too little, too late. Already, the days when you simply had to be on Facebook are over; in fact it's cooler now not to be. And revelations about the sordid past of the geeky founder, Mark Zuckerberg (soon to be seen in a film), aren't helping the firm's image either.

I've always been a little agnostic about Facebook. I'm on it but in a rather half-hearted way. I'm a passive user; if someone asks to be my friend and I know them, I say yes. But I never go hunting. Occasionally I'll peruse the odd photograph (though I hate it when people put up pics of me). But I find all that constant status-updating irritating. Do I really want to know that someone I met at a conference is popping out for a coffee? Er ... no. And the sunlit, airbrushed, smug version of themselves that people promote on the site is frankly tiresome.

Of course, when you're first on it and you realise you can contact pretty well everyone you've ever known, it feels rather exciting. But once you've swapped one of those "Yeah, hi, I'm fine, yes - married, two kids, working as a journalist ... what about you?" emails with someone you used to go to parties with 20 years ago, that's usually about as far as it goes. Facebook doesn't really put you in touch: after a desultory email or so, communication fizzles out. What the site does do, however, is put all the Facebook-perfect lives of everyone you know within easy reach; and that can be quite a pressure if yours isn't matching up.

Last week my vague feelings of unease about social networking were fanned by a fascinating study by the Mental Health Foundation, which blamed high levels of loneliness among young people on their use of virtual, rather than real, communication. Those aged 18-34 (84% of whom use the internet regularly) are the most likely to be lonely, according to the report. And 31% admitted that they spent too much time online rather than meeting up face to face.

The psychologist Dr Aric Sigman says that social networking sites undermine social skills and the ability to read body language. Actual physical contact benefits our wellbeing by boosting levels of the hormone oxytocin. In fact, being lonely is as bad for your health as smoking.

It is not that surprising. After all, human beings are social animals. Our ability to live in groups and co-operate is a key part of our survival as a species. Human beings deprived of others are more prone to anxiety and paranoia. So if you combine physical non-contact - being alone - with a constant stream of information about what a wonderful time all those "friends" are having, you have a classic Petri dish for social anxiety and loneliness.

The very language of sites such as Facebook, with its "Would you like to add me as a friend?" lexicon, undermines what real friendship is. I'm not surprised kids are lonely if a whole generation thinks friends can be made by clicking on an icon, and that it's normal to have hundreds of pals. We all know that many of our "friends" are nothing of the sort; the bulk of them are acquaintances or people we hung out with years ago or former colleagues or contacts.

But young people have grown up with social networking, in which your popularity can be easily measured by the number of friends on your Facebook page. They feel under pressure to demonstrate through these sites how busy and social and popular they are. One colleague told me how horrified she was to discover that her quiet, sporty son had posted a photo of himself semi-naked, beer in one hand, girl in the other. "It so wasn't him," she explained. "He was only posting it because peer pressure implies that's what he should be doing. It was probably the only time he'd ever behaved that way."

One of the great curses of modern life is the tyranny of choice. For a young person, particularly, there are so many options, so many possibilities, that it can seem impossible to choose. The corollary of that is a permanent sense of paranoia: that the choice you made was the wrong one, that the party you are at isn't as fun as the other one you could have gone to. That everyone else is more popular or cool, or having more fun. That the grass is always greener somewhere else.

Social networking, with its instant updates and photos, is like rocket fuel to that kind of paranoia. To some of the youngsters I know, it can seem that their whole lives are one long quest for a post or picture to put on their Facebook page to show their peers they're having a really great time. One told me that she'd had a really terrible night but that it didn't matter because the pics looked great. Hello?

The secret of happiness is to recognise that, wherever you are, whoever you are with, if you are having fun, then that is the best place to be. Over thousands of years, thinkers have exhorted us to live in the moment, be content with our lot, enjoy where we are.

One of the best bits of growing older is being confident enough to see that right here, right now, is pretty damn good, thanks very much. That the endless search for the coolest party, the hippest club, the most exclusive late-night rave, is a pointless bore. Happiness is being content with where you are and what you've got, not wasting time longing for something else.

The great joy of having a few real friends, rather than hundreds on your Facebook site, is that they love you despite your faults. Crucially, with them, you don't have to put up a front; you can admit that, actually, things aren't that great; that being away from home is hard, that you hate your course, that you behaved like a prat.

Real friendships are the antidote to loneliness and the balm of the spirit; they are where we reset our moral compasses, laugh at our idiocies and feel loved and valued for ourselves, not what we pretend to be.

Social networking may be here to stay, but we shouldn't confuse it with the real thing. In an increasingly cyber world, the secret of happiness is probably just getting out there and giving real life a whirl. Who cares what it looks like on Facebook?