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Social Media Overload: Help!

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media networks have been dominating the news lately: President Obama with his town hall meeting at Facebook, we read a chilling report about "Facebook Depression," and multiple stories have tracked what Charlie Sheen or Miley Cyrus (who's back on Twitter!) is tweeting about.

But aren't Facebook and Twitter always in the news these days? The media's love affair with social media knows no bounds--and it's out of control, if you ask me. It feels as though our social media obsession has reached some kind of tipping point.

Am I alone in my disapprobation of self-absorbed social network users? How many times must I put up with Facebook preening, Twitter bragging, and LinkedIn requests for relationships with people I flat-out don't know?

Maybe it's time for a little digital detoxification in our so-called social life. I know what you're thinking: "If you don't like social networks, go buy a book." Maybe I will, but it's not that simple.

The role that social networks now play in our lives is so important that they can't be ignored indefinitely. They help us keep pace with our peers, network for jobs, and even remain socially active offline.

I'm no Back to the Pleistocene technophobe. I'm just advocating social-media life balance. In that spirit, let me explain why taking a break from your Facebook, Twitter, Digg, and StumbleUpon accounts might be a good idea. Then I'll offer some new rules for using each of these social media services, which you are welcome to take as seriously as you like.

"Facebook Depression"

Facebook has some unique aspects that make it an especially rugged social landscape for teens to navigate, according to Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, a pediatrician and lead author of American Academy of Pediatrics' social media guidelines. Check out the group's report, "The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families."

"For some teens and tweens, social media is the primary way they interact socially, rather than at the mall or a friend's house," O'Keeffe says. "A large part of this generation's social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones. Parents need to understand these technologies so they can relate to their children's online world--and comfortably parent in that world."

The Internet has always been full of judgmental idiots, and Facebook is no different. It's common among teens to post snotty or rude messages on the walls of people they don't like, for example.

I have no doubt that Facebook pages make many teens feel worse than they normally would anyway.

It's just another popularity contest at a time when many teens are feeling more pressure from peers and the "me-first" culture. For me, Facebook isn't so much depressing as it is a waste of time, which is a shame, because it started out with some usefulness (see below for more on that).

The "Look at Me NOW!" Narcissist Culture

Reading all of the trivial things my so-called friends and extended family were up to used to seem cute. But more recently the Facebook and Twitter culture has pushed these people to post what they're doing or thinking or photographing 10 times a day. It's as though they're in some kind of competition of the absurd.

Image: Courtesy University of Southern California
Another new report with a long title, "Addressing Relationships Among Moral Judgment Development, Narcissism, and Electronic Media and Communication Devices" postulates that narcissism is rampant on social media sites. Flagler College psychology professor Meghan Saculla and Western Kentucky University psychology professor W. Pitt Derryberry observed how 279 students used social media.

The researchers observed how the students used popular social networking sites, and then they followed up with surveys to determine the students' self-perceptions. Not surprisingly, students who used social media sites to promote themselves tended to come off as narcissistic, and they self-identified as narcissists.

Whenever I make the mistake of calling up my Facebook page, I scroll down in horror. So-and-so likes Mary's picture. Judy has poked me, whatever that means. Mary-Lou "can't wait for May!" June, who's having salmon and brown rice for dinner, has posted five more baby pictures. (We get it. You had a baby.) Larry has changed his status. He's now sharing with the world that he's separated.

The problem is, I used to be able to find valuable information on Facebook and Twitter. Now, if I'm looking for news from the beat writer who covers the San Francisco Giants, it's so buried in dross that I can barely find it.

Clearly, the narcissists who use these sites must be reined in; and if the government won't do it, I guess it's up to the rest of us. Here are my recommendations. Note that these rules could be adapted to apply to social networks not listed here.

New Rules for Social Media

New Facebook rules: You may post only one update per day. You may "like" or comment on only one item per day. You may not add more than one new video or photo per week. You may not constantly change your status. You may never poke anyone outside your immediate family.

New Twitter rules: Limit yourself to two tweets per day, and don't auto-follow everyone. Also, don't create endless hashtags for organizing your tweets.

New LinkedIn rules: Keep your professional network to an appropriate size. Don't update what you're doing more than once a day. Don't treat the site as if it were another Facebook.

New rule for StumbleUpon and Digg: Stumble or Digg no more than one item every three days. And never ask me to join your StumbleUpon or Digg network.

If you have any rules that you'd like to propose for social networks, please do so in the Comments section.

Tom Dunlap's e-mail address is tomdunlap222@gmail.com.

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