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What's on your Facebooker's mind? Even if you don't hear your teenagers muttering as they slouch in front of the computer, you may have detected a certain mood. A disenchantment. Especially as they surf Facebook's choppy, churning waves of status updates and photos.

"Man," your son might think on a bad day, "even Justin's got a girlfriend now, and I still don't. Hannah's in Greece with her family this week—they all look really happy. And why didn't anyone tell me they were going to that concert? Life is great for everyone but me." Suddenly, as he assesses his world through others' witticisms and exciting pictures, your previously happy—or at least semi-contented—teen feels worse about his life. Why? Because Facebook can seem like a massive popularity contest that few can win.

This scenario is increasingly common now that social media has become, for many teens, a chief means of communicating with their peers. If you've ever sensed Facebook envy in your child after he's been online, you won't be surprised by a new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics. It claims Facebook can send teens into a funk—especially teens with a tendency toward mood disorders. Researchers have dubbed it "Facebook depression," and they're not yet certain whether it's a unique disorder or an extension of an already existing condition. Regardless, for some adolescents, Facebook can lead to an even more faltering sense of self-worth.

Clearly, jealousy and social comparisons have been part of the human condition ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Every human being, regardless of race, culture or era, has felt the sting of rejection and inferiority, whether real or imagined. But researchers say Facebook can actually increase this pain because the site often portrays a falsely idealized reality—one devoid of context, gestures, tone and facial expression. And to already susceptible teenagers, that can be as painful as experiencing real-life rejection. As they negatively internalize Facebook's friend counts, usually cheerful status updates and photos of happy people doing all manner of exciting things, young people can feel pressured to be as successful and happy as their peers seem to be. The key word being "seem."

Keeping Things in Perspective
So how can parents help children navigate Facebook's occasionally murky waters? Having a frank talk about self-worth and their uniqueness in Christ is an excellent start, even before your teen signs up for a social networking site. Discussing Bible verses such as Galatians 6:4 and Romans 12:6-8 could help bolster both dialogue and sagging spirits. It's a conversation you may need to have more than once if you sense your teen playing the comparison game.

When a teen's self-worth is rightly placed in Christ, Facebook is no longer a significant confidence buster. And on the brighter side of social media, University of Wisconsin adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Megan Moreno told that using Facebook can actually enhance feelings of social connectedness for healthy, well-adjusted kids.

"Facebook is where all the teens are hanging out now. It's their corner store," lead study author Dr. Gwenn O'Keefe also told the news site. And she added in her research report, "Parents need to understand these [social media] technologies so they can relate to their children's online world—and comfortably parent in that world."

The key is to remain engaged. Watch for mood swings and a discontented air. Give children a spiritual perspective, and encourage them to "like" the life they have. After all, many Facebook users are very skilled at putting their best face forward. If we help teens keep their eyes on God and things that really matter, there's no reason they shouldn't be able to swim safely in that site's streams of consciousness and waves of minutiae.

Published July 2011