Opinion

Is Facebook creating a temptation generation?

Facebook is the digital marshmallow we can't resist.

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Back in the late 1960s, researcher Walter Mischel conducted an experiment that has come to be known as the "Marshmallow Test."

This test consisted of giving marshmallows to 4-year-olds, with the promise of more marshmallows to come if they could delay eating the first for 15 minutes. Those who resisted the sugary treat were shown to do well later in life, while those who failed to resist were more likely to suffer from lower test scores, even issues of drug dependency.

More than 40 years later, Facebook has proved to be an even sweeter marshmallow to its millions of users than any puffed confection Mr. Mischel handed out.

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While beginning to write this piece, I couldn't resist the temptation to check my own Facebook profile.

Has anybody commented on my latest status update? Has Jenna from high school accepted my late-night friend request? I can just click right over and find out, but I know once I do I'll end up spending the rest of the afternoon playing Scrabble and commenting on tagged photos.

I'm not alone with this struggle. Comb through any random Facebook page and you'll find people around the world updating statuses from their offices, from classrooms, even from behind the wheel. The deferred rewards of keeping one's job, learning arithmetic, or even staying alive are no match for the compound-worded monster.

The temptation to let others know how happy or sad we feel, and more important, the numerous supportive messages we'll receive from our "friends," is an exercise in deferred gratification that we all lose on a daily basis. And who's to blame us? With its complicated algorithms and formulas, Facebook takes the legwork out of friendship. Do you know Bob? Why not send a friend request to his girlfriend Jane? You haven't talked to Lee in a while. Maybe you should send him a message.

Why go through the trouble of going out and cultivating one new friendship when Facebook lets you meet and befriend hundreds in less time than it takes to watch an episode of "Jersey Shore"?

Every day many people do choose the hundreds of online friends over that one real friend. And what's truly sad is what we're teaching our nation's younger, more impressionable generation. Those born after 1990 have never known a world without the Internet, and it's clear they're fully ingrained in the culture of "right now."

In choosing the cozy, instant world of online socializing and gaming over human interaction and exercise, this generation has broken records (and scales) for childhood obesity. According to the latest findings of the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.

When I worked at a video-game retailer, I saw much of this behavior firsthand. Children would update their Facebook statuses or tweet from their iPhones while their parents shrugged in a "What can you do?" fashion as they handed me a stack of video games. More often than not, these children were obese.

There are positives to having access to the world at our fingertips. Last year's violent protests in Iran were made real by the video of Neda Soltan's death, distributed through sites such as YouTube and Facebook, and footage of the quakes in Haiti helped raise millions of dollars for the rescue efforts. But while many people were called to action by such tragedies, many never made it past the "share" button at the top of their Facebook pages.

When your country leads the way in obesity, it's time to put down the BlackBerry and pick up a basketball. I'm not advocating a Facebook boycott or a video-game bonfire.

What I am calling for is a little participation in the analog world. Unplug for one day a week. Play flag football instead of Madden 10. Build houses for Habitat for Humanity instead of a barn in Farmville. Meet and befriend real people.

After all, it's not as if Facebook could give you a ride to the airport.

Mel Layos is a freelance writer and screenplay analyst when he's not too busy updating his Facebook profile.

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