After the first wave of social media splashed into a mainstream habit for a generation of tech-savvy teens, a second-generation of adapters are grappling with the murky ripple of uncharted rules of its use. Enter the middle aged users.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, one third of 45 to 65 year old users have an online profile, quadrupling the number from four years ago. And while older people are making their mark online, navigating the Internet doesn’t come naturally to them, and many forget that their computer isn’t a one dimensional window into the world. “Older generations are susceptible to allowing social media to leak into their personal and private lives,” says Grant Powell, digital media expert and founder of POM8, an online brand consulting company. And as the intimacy of the Internet goes both ways, sometimes the past shoots to the surface again, leaving little or no time for damage control.
A younger generation of Internet users has two advantages in this situation: they don't have to worry about the forgotten memories looming into their present life, and they realize rivacy belongs to no one, so their lifestyle is deeply integrated with a sense of virtual transparency. “You know the old saying ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?’ That was true five years ago, but that has since gone out the door when social media came along,” says social media consultant and blogger Tracy Sestili. “Privacy will soon be a thing of the past that is valued by none and coveted by few.” Valued or not, it’s precisely Generation Y’s willingness to share combined with their shorter history that probably won’t bring up less-than-flattering flashbacks that makes them the core of the phenomenon.
“The Baby Boomers are very shy about social media. They are like the school geek at a prep party. They are trying to fit it enough not to stand out,” says 19 year old U.S. soldier Patricio Quezada who thinks the changes are both exciting and scary. “Generation-Yers are fully indulged in the social media phenomena. We are very open with ourselves and our personalities and want to share it with the entire world.”
But in their rush to relive their youth, more and more Baby Boomers are letting their privacy diminish, thus blurring the lines between forgotten controversies and their present lives. Mike, 40, of Knoxville, Tenn., who asked to be identified only by his first name, was married to his wife for 13 years before Facebook divided their union. “My wife was spending an incredible amount of time reconnecting with old friends and reading and sharing posts. Then she found one of her high school sweethearts from 22 years ago. And yes, they were soon involved in an emotional affair,” he says. On May 17, 2010, Mike’s wife told him that she wanted out of the marriage because she was involved with someone else. “I soon discovered who he was and that it completely started with Facebook. She moved out and our divorce was final last October,” said Mike. “I also contacted his wife and informed her of their infidelity. I was startled when she said, ‘He does this sh*t all the time. He’s not going anywhere. It’s just playtime for him.’"
The solution seems simple: Avoid friending old flames. When rebuilding bridges comes as quick as a click, the consequences seem fleeting. While driving four hours to meet a forbidden lover is certainly taboo, the ease of a search bar makes cheating simple by creating a false security. “My husband got reconnected with his ex-wife on Facebook. I’m on Facebook, but we’re not friends, although he had her on his page,” says Cee Johnson, who recently left her husband. “There is so much disrespect, but he refuses to come off[line].”
A 2008 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that one in five adults ranging from age 18 to 65 have used Facebook for flirting. So what constitutes flirting? “I know its probably two people just catching up. But I also know that is how affairs get started,” said Larry Valen, a 43 year old father of two kids and a husband of 13 years who has just started to feel the invisible effects of Facebook in his marriage. “There was one email between my wife and a friend from high school. She mentioned that she was going to Miami for work and he asked if she wanted to meet up in a different city. Fortunately, she never responded back,” Valen said.
But while Valen’s situation hasn’t led to infidelity, Facebook’s addictive nature has leached into other aspects of their married life. “I did notice something change significantly with our marriage – every night after the kids were in bed, my wife would turn on the computer and would be hooked on Facebook until we went to bed. As someone who doesn’t watch much TV, I got bored and started to live online as well, just visiting BS websites. We truly had a modern day marriage – no talking, no conversations – just a couple with two laptops on in the same room. Sad.”
This scenario is probably more common in 21st century marriages than we think. Facebook.com reports that people spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook, and 50% of active users log on everyday. Additionally, a March 2011 census of Facebook shows that nearly half of these users are between the ages of 26-54, and numbers from an older demographic continue to grow.
Well-aware of the digital addiction, a Cincinnati couple just launched a campaign for Facebookers to take a 30-day "Social Rehab Challenge," deactivating their account for 30 days to evaluate if they have let Facebook interfere with their lives. Jenn Sheridan, creator of the project, says that personal connections can be affected by this virtual void. “I think problems arise when Facebookers use Facebook as an escape from the ‘real world.’ If you are accomplishing more living online than off, it may be time to reassess,” she says. Reacquiring a sense of privacy is what often leads to challenge participants to completely deactivate their account and live life wirelessly yet again. And in a networked world where secrets are only hidden by a password, this might be an ideal solution for couples today.
“Just ditch all of the social networking sites,” advises Cooper Harrison, who recently deleted his Facebook and Myspace accounts in order to build more trust with his fiance. “You’ll have more free time with your partner, zero suspicions, zero temptations, and you’ll know who your real friends are when they actually call you on the phone instead of sending you an internet cocktail.”