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Is Facebook really a friend?

It’s “Facebook official”: Seven years after its founding, Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking site is more popular than ever.

Our society’s Facebook fixation has led to the box-office hit “The Social Network” and coined phrases such as “Facebook stalking” and “Facebook official.” With over 500 million active users, Facebook has become a site frequently used by members of every age group and demographic of society. According to the Facebook Press Room, 50 percent of active users log onto Facebook on any given day, which explains the 700 billion minutes people spend on the site per month.

With so much time spent on the social network, there are bound to be downsides amid the benefits. Within seconds, a user can see a friend’s favorite movies and music, where the person goes on the weekends and who their mutual friends are. Some would consider this an invasion of privacy, but most Facebook users like these features.

“By looking at their info, you can tell a lot about a person,” freshman Shimul Gajjar said.

Then again, how much is too much information? Some Facebook members may use poor discretion when deciding what to post on their profiles.

“The person doesn’t get to see others’ responses to what they post,” said Cristina Anido, former psychologist and now a school counselor at the Coral Way Bilingual K-8 Center in Miami. “You don’t see how people react to what you say, so it makes you feel safer.”

As a result of this poor discretion, cyberbullying has become an issue amongst the site’s younger users. The issue boils down to one of freedom of speech. Facebook users are free to say whatever they want about anyone they want, but sometimes all that talk has repercussions.

“You wouldn’t be as mean or provocative if you were really face-to-face with the person,” Anido said. “Cyberbullying on sites like Facebook may not be the only factor that leads to teen suicides and depression, but it is definitely a major contributing factor.”

Seventeen percent of American students reported being bullied two to three times a month or more during a school semester according to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. The program’s report also stated boys are just as likely to be bullied as girls.

“It’s terrible that people have killed themselves and I hope that people realize the damage that they are doing to others by cyberbullying,” said Alexandra Koeck-Schultz, a seventh-grade student at Gulliver Academy in Coral Gables.

Cyberbullying victims were almost twice as likely to attempt suicide compared to adolescents who had not experienced cyberbullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University.

Cyberbullying can even affect students who don’t have a Facebook account.

“I was cyberbullied last year when some girls bullied me through Facebook,” Koeck-Schultz said. “They wrote mean things about me on each others’ walls. I don’t have a Facebook, but my friend does, and she saw the hurtful things that they were writing.”

For better or for worse Facebook has changed the way people communicate, and cyberbullying is just one aspect of the equation.

“It’s awful,” said Dr. Thomas Steinfatt, a professor at UM’s School of Communication. “But at the moment there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t take the technology back.”

According to Dr. Steinfatt, educators don’t yet have sufficient research on the long-term effects Facebook and cyberbullying will have on the generation of school children who will have spent their entire adolescence documenting their lives on a social network.

“It’s altering the way people socially interact and relate with each other,” Anido said. “[And social networks] are not going to disappear anytime soon.”

Nicky Diaz may be contacted at ndiaz@themiamihurricane.com.

October 24, 2010

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Nicky Diaz

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