Jordan Flowers 09C was eager to join Emory's Facebook network, which is accessible only to Emory students.

Facebook: The good, the bad, and the downright scary

Long before she arrived on campus as a freshman last fall, Jordan Flowers 09C was a member of the Emory community on the online network Facebook, where she was able to socialize, make friends, and learn about the University.

“I began using Facebook the summer before my freshman year,” Flowers says. “I can remember eagerly waiting for my Emory email address so that I could create a Facebook account and connect with all my friends from high school.”

Karen Salisbury, director of the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement, knows firsthand how dependent college students have become on the site. Recently she was trying to get in touch with her college-age nephew to invite him to dinner, but her emails went unreturned. Finally, she called him.

“He said, ‘I hardly check email anymore,’ ” Salisbury says. “ ‘If you want to reach me, you have to use Facebook.’ ”

Facebook leads MySpace and Friendster as the most popular online network for college students, partly because it is targeted primarily to them. More than 2,500 colleges have networks on Facebook, and some reports have estimated that as many as 85 percent of students at those schools use the service. Emory’s network alone has more than 12,500 members, including students, faculty, staff, alumni—and Salisbury, who joined partly to keep an eye on students’ activity and partly to invite her nephew to dinner. Facebook requires an Emory email address to join Emory’s network, a privacy feature many students find comforting.

“I am actually glad you can’t see the profiles from other schools,” Flowers says. “It makes me feel safer that only Emory students and my friends from other schools that I have approved can see my profile.”

Most students say they use Facebook primarily for socializing and keeping up with friends. “I have reunited with friends as far back as elementary school,” says Marissa Mitchell 07C, a senior who has been using Facebook since it was launched in 2004. “I also use it to maintain contact with people I meet through internships and trips. It is a great network to meet my sorority sisters at different schools.” Mitchell’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, has its own Facebook network.

Although the allure of Facebook is clear, the pitfalls are almost as obvious, as the mainstream media and university publications across the country have highlighted repeatedly in recent months. Salisbury is concerned that students’ privacy can be seriously compromised by the information in their profiles, which often includes birthdays, hometowns, social habits, and hundreds of photos. Last winter, Salisbury sent a letter to all students warning them to use Facebook and similar sites with caution.

“Students across the country are expressing concerns about stalking, identity theft, assault, and potential employers’ access to the information contained on these sites,” Salisbury wrote. “Although it can be fun now, it could come back to haunt you.”

Even as the popularity of Facebook soars, some students report a growing awareness of the risks. Mitchell experienced an encounter this summer that gave her a decided chill.

“I was at a restaurant, and this guy approached my table and said, ‘Hi, Marissa, I know you from Facebook. You changed your profile yesterday.’ I was pretty creeped out. I saved the guy as a friend months earlier because he was a friend of one of my friends. That night I had to go back through my profile to search him and find out what school he attended. The scary thing is that he spotted me in public and called me by name. You never know who watches and remembers you from the network.”

Another troubling trend, according to Salisbury, is that of potential employers using Facebook to screen candidates. If a student’s profile includes a suggestive photo, indicates excessive partying, or reveals anything an employer might deem inappropriate, it can be a serious mark against him or her. Universities across the country are warning students to post with propriety.

Like any such site, Facebook also can be used for objectionable purposes, such as an incident last year when a student group from Emory posted overtly racist content. Other students worked with Facebook administrators to have the material removed.

“The relative anonymity of Facebook emboldens students to promote points of view using inappropriate language,” says Donna Wong, associate director of the Office of Multicultural Programs. “While divergent perspectives are welcomed, responsible behavior is encouraged.”

In addition to these larger problems, on a more practical level, many students admit that Facebook is a major time vacuum.

“In terms of drawbacks, Facebook is incredibly addicting,” Flowers says. “I can honestly say I check Facebook about four times a day, and I am not the only one of my friends to do so. It’s a great way to spend an hour without realizing it.”

Jennifer Goldstein 08C jokes that “procrastination” is one of the main reasons she logs onto Facebook. But sophomore Jon Oum 09C is not as amused.

“Facebook can be like a drug,” he says. “At first, you are mesmerized by the sheer brilliance of it, and compulsively check it whenever possible, with joy. However, it starts to grow old, and you lose interest, but still must check it as if you are missing something. Facebook probably has led to the decline of GPAs, productivity, social life, and brain cell count.”

Be that as it may, with 20,000 new profiles a day, Facebook isn’t going anywhere. And if used appropriately, students say it can enrich meaningful social connections.

“One of the best things about Facebook is the opportunity to keep in touch with a wide range of people,” Flowers says. “It is always great to sign onto Facebook and discover that a friend has left a message on your wall.”—P.P.P.



 © 2006 Emory University