Watch out if you’re on Facebook—you could be at risk for some serious mental angst. That’s according to a new study, which delved into the murky world of “unfriending,” that uniquely online act by which you decide (or someone else decides for you) to sever virtual ties with another person. The study looked at the “real-life consequences” of unfriending someone online, using 583 responses gathered via Twitter (I know, weird, right?). It found that 40 percent of people say they would avoid someone in real life who unfriended them on Facebook, while half say they wouldn’t.
Some of those consequences highlight the way social media relationships affect people in the real world. [Study author Christopher] Sibona says the survey results show the effects of being ostracized on social media, citing respondents who reported reduced self-esteem, feelings of not belonging and a loss of control after being unfriended. Respondents also say they had a worse mood after a social media breakup.
This isn’t the first time Sibona, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Denver Business School, has studied the art and war of unfriending. Back in 2010, he ran a study to find out why people are unfriended online (top reasons: their updates are either too mundane or too inflammatory) and how they felt about being unfriended. There, too, some respondents reported feeling “deeply hurt.” (Others, I should add, said they were “more amused than traumatized.”)
Oh, come on. Do we really take our online personas that seriously—that being virtually snubbed sends us into a psychological tailspin? Are we so invested in having Facebook friends that not having them suddenly makes us feel like the dork on the elementarys-school playground all over again?
The answer, according to this study, is yes. In fact, our delicate online egos are so important that last year, Psychology Today saw fit to publish nearly 1,600 (!) words on the subject, offering “five ways to manage online rejection.” I’ll save you the read: it encourages the sad, sad recipients of unfriending to not “ruminate over the unfriending” and to “look critically at your own Facebook behavior.”
Instead of getting all Dr. Phil about our Facebook profiles, maybe we should try taking Facebook a little less seriously. After all, Facebook is a place to post pictures of your vacation, play weird farm animal games, and secretly stalk your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend to see how much weight they’ve gained in the past six months. It’s a place to post funny videos and make clever inside jokes on your college roommate’s wall about that time you got lost in Boston and drove around for five hours when you were supposed to be back at your dorm, packing to move out the next day (true story).
What it’s not is substitute for your actual, living, breathing, fun, spontaneous, active, creative, exhausting, fulfilling off-line life. The life where if your friends actually started snubbing you, you’d have every right to feel put out. Why? Because you’re a real person with real feelings, not a bunch of words and pictures that live on a website.
I think more than anything, this study shows us that it’s time to get a grip and reevaluate our priorities. Maybe it’s a wakeup call for us all to spend a little less time in our online worlds and a little more time in the real world. I think Dr. Phil would agree.