Modern guilt: The psychology behind not accepting that "friend" request
Most Facebook® users experience the emotional quandary at least once in their social networking existence. That is, shall you salvage the iota of privacy left in a seemingly anti-privacy era by daring to not accept that umpteenth “friend” request? Or do you continue compromising your personal identity with more Facebook friends than you care to admit simply to avoid the social repercussions of befriending and then “defriending” someone?
The social networking and popular culture reality is that many Facebook users often feel compelled to upkeep virtual friendships despite compromising personal privacy. Yet they simultaneously are awash with guilt and anxiety about their “friending” behaviors because there is an innate psychological need to belong socially, according to several University of Phoenix faculty members also trained as counselors and/or psychologists.
“Coming from a humanistic [psychology] perspective, the guilt or anxiety that is created from a social networking site needs to be looked at under the context of social psychology,” says Dr. Christine Karper, Ph.D., a counselor educator and an area chair in psychology for the College of Social Sciences at the University of Phoenix Central Florida Campus. It is what Karper, who specializes in anxiety disorders, says humanistic theorist Carl Rogers referred to as unconditional positive regard.
“In order to meet the need of love and belonging,” she explains, “we seek out behaviors that will bring us acceptance and love or, more basically, approval. It can be explained that the feelings of guilt or anxiety we feel when we reject a ‘friend’ request … is a reflection of the fear of being rejected ourselves combined with the fear of not belonging [or] fitting in to the current trends of society or popular culture.”
In fact, the more Facebook friends one touts on his profile, the guiltier and more anxious that person feels, according to a recent study by Scottish researchers. The February 2011 study, conducted by psychologists at Edinburgh Napier University, finds 12% of respondents reporting Facebook-related anxiety each averaged 117 friends compared to those remaining 88% of anxiety-free respondents each averaging 75 friends.
The study further finds that 63% of its surveyed respondents delayed replying to friends request while 32% reported feelings of guilt and discomfort resulted from rejecting friend requests.
Taking the friend dilemma to the classroom
Laura Hull, M.A., a faculty member at the University of Phoenix Central Florida Campus, says she discusses Facebook-induced guilt in each psychology class she teaches.
Recently, she says, her students discussed the true definition of a Facebook “friend.” Hull found the sheer semantics of the term “friend” labeling Facebook requests tends to hobble our social judgment by feeding into this unrelenting need to socially belong.
“One of the things that really trips us up psychologically or makes us feel guilty when we deny it is because it’s called a 'friend' request. It feels as though someone is reaching out to you,” explains Hulls, also a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Therefore, she adds, “it feels worse to seem like we are seeking out an opportunity to deliberately hurt someone when we decline a person’s friend request because what we are really saying, to some degree, is: ‘I don’t want to be your friend.’ Perhaps it might not make us feel so guilty to decline a person’s request if it was worded in a way that it plainly asks: ‘I’d like permission to view your personal posts and photos.’”
That’s because social spying is sometimes the only desire of these “friends,” especially those who never bother to even send a greeting once the friendship is accepted, says Hull. In turn, these friend collectors, or those who exceed 300-plus Facebook friends, face an even bigger psychological issue than those users more discerning and guilt-ridden in their attempts to tighten their virtual social circles. “If they get some kind of satisfaction from seeing a high number of friends, it usually means they are not getting something out of their daily interactions in life.”
Narcissism is the real friending issue in social pop culture
Not many people today steadily watch The Real World™ on MTV despite its credit as the American pop culture icon of today’s endlessly popular fishbowl reality television shows. Yet this is perhaps what started our ambivalence toward safeguarding our privacy, as well as the guilt of shunning Facebook friends when we deliberately deviate from this reality-world norm, says Dr. Chad M. Mosher, Ph.D., NCC, the Campus Chair for both the College of Social Sciences and the College of Criminal Justice and Security at the University of Phoenix Southern Arizona Campus.
“Assessing other people’s lives has become normal … and wanting our lives to be seen by others has become a normal trend in popular [American] culture," says Mosher, who also teaches popular culture courses. The byproducts of guilt and anxiety surface when people filter this ego-driven desire to be a real-world “star” into being a real-time, virtual star on Facebook, he says. The end result is a psychological shift from guilt about initiating a friend rejection to the narcissistic thoughts about what a shunned or “defriended” friend might think of the user.
“This sense of Facebook guilt … comes from this self-imposed idea that our virtual identities are so much cooler than who we are in real life. A lot of anxiety and, ultimately, narcissism, is on the rise as we try to maintain this ‘thrilling’ life we portray in our party photos and posting and by acquiring 300, 400, even 500 friends," says Mosher, a trained counselor and psychologist.
We tend to overlook this narcissism as we struggle with the less complex emotion of guilt, he says. But Mosher says we must recognize that too much narcissism can be very dangerous when our sense of self is so grandiose and attention seeking from hundred of “friends” because it can eliminate a person’s solid foundation of identity. Overall, he notes, both emotions still relate back to the psychological need to belong and be loved.
Ironically, Karper adds, we become more and more isolated from traditional social circles as people rely on technology, like social networking, to meet this need.
“We have machines that do our banking, shopping, and conversing (texting) without having to interact physically with a single person. This can be a very lonely and isolating place to be,” says Karper. Therefore, the need to fit in and belong overall and virtually “may feel more important now than ever.” This may account for why our feelings of Facebook-related guilt may feel so strong.
Leaving Facebook produces guilt, too
Hull personally shunned this virtual need to belong altogether in favor of her personal privacy. And what she found as she closed her Facebook account is that Facebook itself tried to exacerbate her guilt by asking her a phrase akin to: ‘do you really want to leave us?’ as it posted photos of her friends.
“It is manipulative. It’s essentially questioning your judgment about whether something is good or not for you, socially, and that … skews our greater picture of what are appropriate social boundaries,” says Hull. “I don’t think people realize that by valuing social networks as they do that they are making themselves vulnerable for public consumption.”
“People just need to stop and think: Do I really want this ‘friend’ having access to my life and even my family? If you can answer that as ‘no’ then you probably should not accept that ‘friend’ request and not feel guilty about it,” Hull says.
Hopefully, she says, people will start to move away from the guilt in order to recognize their rights to protect themselves and selectively socialize.
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The Real World is a trademark of MTV Networks.