Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.

Who would think that, after only five years of its existence, such a word would cause such feelings at its mention?!! For some parents the word gives a feeling of helplessness about a secret world. They know very little about it except that their children (younger and older) spend a great deal of time in it. They see that their children are often secretive about their time and activities there.

For young people, and maybe not-so-young people, that word elicits all kinds of different feelings. About their friends they have a feeling of togetherness. About their parents that same word brings a feeling of defensiveness, of having a private and personal domain violated. Whatever the feelings are, they are very strong. And those strong feelings often lead to overreaction on the part of both parents and their children.

What is it about Facebook, Myspace, and all these different social networking sites that makes them so attractive and that provokes such strong feelings?

Social networking sites are attractive for two different reasons. elicits

The first reason is that they are an excellent way for people to keep track of what their friends are doing. Without even asking, one can know at an instant not only what his friends are doing, but how they are feeling and how they are reacting to different events and circumstances, everything from their day at school to the most recent loss of a favorite sports team. Picture Facebook as being present at a large party of friends. At this party, all kinds of different projection screens are set up, each belonging to one person. Each person controls his own presentation on that screen: images, conversation, attitudes, and personal opinions. Each person at that party is also able to direct his attention to any of those screens to see what his friend is saying or presenting. Part of the attraction, then, is to get as many as possible in the network looking at your screen.

The second reason social networking sites are popular is that they provide a way to interact socially without risk. Talking face to face with people, especially in a group setting, carries all kinds of risks. There is the risk of saying or doing something embarrassing. There is the risk of being rejected by the individual with whom you are speaking. There is also the risk of being too much yourself! How does Facebook eliminate or reduce these risks? First, the standard of acceptable conduct and behavior is lowered dramatically. Words are spoken and images are shown that simply are unacceptable in a real-world setting for their offense. Words spoken that would otherwise destroy and break friendships in the real world pass for common currency among friends in the social networks.

Why should this difference be so great between the real world and the world of social networking? A simple answer: drama! These social networks can be compared to a gigantic stage on which actors and actresses present their alter egos. These alter egos are largely experimental, constantly being molded and shaped by their authors. Sometimes (the best) there is an effort to maintain an exact correspondence between who an individual really is and his online persona. At other times (worse and worst), the on-line persona is nothing at all like the user’s real personality.

One of the prevailing understandings of social networking sites is that all members do a certain amount of tinkering with their self-presentations. Everything about yourself is subject to change. Too young? Make yourself appear older. Too tall? Make yourself shorter. Boring hobbies and interests? Change them to what excites other people, not what they truly might be. What young person isn’t going to put on his profile that he enjoys “chillin’ with friends”?

Why these differences? Sometimes people are too afraid to be themselves for fear of being ridiculed. In cyberspace they will adopt a hard, exterior shell. Sometimes others work hard to make themselves more attractive than they think they are, all for the sake of attracting favorable opinions from current or potential friends.

For the above reasons your Facebook profile can be misleading. Your parents, checking up on your profiles, may find completely different creatures than those dwelling in their homes, and this can provoke a powerful reaction. They find that these creatures look dissimilar, speak differently, act abnormally, and have morals incongruous with the real you!

These differences have their dangers. One danger is that you might prefer your Facebook alter ego to your own self. You feel more comfortable being online than off. Then another danger presents itself, that you prefer cyberspace to real space, drama to reality. Real life becomes less real than life on Facebook. Then, an even worse danger is that your preference should lead you to adjust your real self to fit that online persona.

Another danger is that you neglect caring for those around you in your everyday reality for the sake of your online friends. That care involves dealing with difficulties that come up in real life but are never present among online friendships. Deep needs among friends never make their appearance in cyberspace, but only in reality. In reality you can be truly helpful to your friends. Members of your family demand commitment from you as part of your relationship with them. Social networking sites cannot substitute for those commitments. Likewise, the Lord is pleased to give you strength through your Christian friends and family that He has given you in real life. Your social networks cannot be an effective substitute.

The Lord has placed you in real life. His expectation is that you learn to enjoy and treasure real life, where the communion of the saints is, where your family, friends, and neighbors are. His determination is that you exercise yourselves in the keeping of His commandments to your neighbors in real life. The Lord is in real life, to be believed on, worshiped, and served. He has given priority to real life over cyberspace.

Now, don’t get me wrong. All of the above is possible and must be obligatory in your social networks in cyberspace. But they cannot be a substitute for living for and obeying God away from the computer screen. In other words, remember that you have a real-time, living social network in which God has placed you: your family, immediate family and church family, the friends that you can reach out to and with whom you can share real-time events, and your neighbors.

Facebook and other social networking websites are like windows. Your Facebook profile is like a window before which you appear to your friends or to the world. This window is a controlled presentation of yourself. You govern your appearance through this window to your audience, whoever it might be. What are your motives in that government? Do you Photoshop your pictures until you look like somebody else? Do you present yourself worse than you are, perhaps dressing yourself in a way you wouldn’t dare appear before your parents? Then your profile may not even be a window, but a simple picture that is posted to look like a window.

But also think about Facebook as a mirror. See your own reflection in that mirror. Is that reflection true to who you really are? Is that reflection properly yours, or is it someone else’s? Is that reflection really appealing to you? Is it appealing to the Lord? Now think of Facebook as a mirror in a deeper way to reflect your heart. What about those differences between you and your online persona? You use your online presentation for a reason. How do you see yourself in this mirror according to that use? Are you deceptive? Are you worldly or profane? If your parents are troubled when they meet your Facebook persona, is it because they see a caricature of the real you?

One of the most important questions that you can ask yourself about your use of Facebook is whether or not anyone can tell from your profile, etc., that you are a Christian. Does your profile place you squarely on the right side of the antithesis? Follow that same thought through to every aspect of your communication, everything from gifts to bumper stickers to the conversations among yourselves: do they clearly benefit the people with whom you are communicating?

Let me give a helpful suggestion about using Facebook properly. One of its appealing features is instant feedback to postings. This feature can often lead to regret as opinions and judgments offered in haste can cause irreparable damage to friendships. A good preventative measure is delay. Before you send anything, wait a little bit. Ask yourself if it might give you cause for regret later. Even more, before giving out your opinion ask yourself if what you send is helpful to your friend.

Facebook is a very powerful tool. It can be used powerfully for evil, to tear down and to destroy both yourself and others. But it can also be used powerfully for good, to bring together a closer unity and friendship among fellow saints. If there are any who can use such a tool powerfully and properly, it should be you and I. We are rooted and grounded in the truth of God’s Word, by the grace of God. It is that truth that sanctifies us by the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. By that powerful working in our hearts and our lives, we should then be able to use all things for the glory of God, including Facebook.