What effect is Facebook having on families?

It’s an important question, given the ever-growing presence the social networking site has in the daily lives of Americans. The average American spends 40 minutes a day on Facebook. It’s probably safe to assume that number is higher for teenagers, who by contrast spend an average of 4.2 minutes a day reading. Nearly one-fourth of teens report logging in to their Facebook accounts more than 10 times a day.

There are all sorts of aspects of teen social media use that are concerning. Parents have reason to be concerned about security, for example, especially when the average teenager does not even know one-fourth of their Facebook friends. Teens are especially prone to anxiety about social acceptance, and a recent rash of teen suicides related to cyber-bullying has raised concerns about the way the social networking site enables teens to prey on each others’ vulnerabilities.

But adults should be concerned about the way that Facebook is affecting their relationships, too.  A 2010 study from the American Academy of Matrimonal Lawyers found that 81 percent of divorce lawyers have seen an increase in Facebook as a source of material in divorce cases. In 2008, one in five divorce proceedings cited “Facebook.” By 2011, that number had risen to one in three. Another study that year found that one-third of those with a social network report having contemplated leaving their spouse, as compared to less than one-fifth of those without a Facebook page. Presumably that’s partly because the network helps people keep potential partners on the backburner (as yet another study shows).

And recent studies have shown that Facebook seems to make people feel less happy in general, much due to the way the site encourages comparison. People use Facebook to promote and exaggerate the happier and more appealing aspects of their lives, leaving many feeling like the lives of others are far better than their own. One study from Stanford found that Facebook users “consistently underestimated how dejected others were—and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result.” Another University of Michigan study found that using Facebook increases feelings of unhappiness and dejection. According to one of the study’s authors, “When you’re on a site like Facebook, you get lots of posts about what people are doing. That sets up social comparison — you maybe feel your life is not as full and rich as those people you see on Facebook.”

So Facebook leaves teens and children vulnerable, puts parents at greater risk of discord in their marital relationship, and makes it easier for families to compare their lot to others, often in a distorted and unrealistic way. Yet the network is clearly not going anywhere anytime soon. So the question becomes, is there a way to use Facebook in a positive way for family life? Or at least to minimize the damage it can cause to families?

A good starting point is establishing familial awareness. Knowing what everyone in the family is doing on Facebook, how much time they are spending on it, who they are engaging with, whether they are accepting friend requests from strangers, et cetera. A recent study conducted by McAfee found that of the six in ten teens who have witnessed online bullying, 93 percent report it as having taken place on Facebook, behavior that only 25 percent of parents are reportedly aware of. And while 70 percent of teens claim to have hidden their online behavior from their parents, 50 percent claim they would change that behavior if they knew their parents were monitoring it.

Parents should encourage Facebook engagement among family members to encourage transparency and foster the sense among their children that their parents are well aware of their children’s Facebook activity. A teen who creates a limited profile to hide behavior from a parent might be less inclined to do so if they sense the parent can sniff out a limited profile or if the parent regularly engages their children and children’s network on Facebook, for example.

Beyond establishing a sense of control and transparency with their kids about Facebook, how families engage Facebook will vary. But establishing consistent boundaries and guidelines, like limits on usage during the school week or consulting the family before posting something that relates to the family, are some ways to maintain control over the vast and ubiquitous social network’s presence in the home. Parents have their heads in the sand if they think they can keep Facebook out of their homes and prevent it from affecting their family lives. But they would be equally foolish to assume that what they see (or don’t see) online is what they get with their spouse or kids.

Facebook affects the family, that’s for sure. Just how much it does, however, is up to you.