That's a question that Peggy Orenstein mulled over in her article about Facebook in the New York Times Magazine today. Facebook as "the best evidence yet of the undead past," she wrote, can have a profound impact on how young people become adults. If they can never shed their old identities formed in middle school or in the hometown, it could be a struggle for them to forge a new self, the self they want to be, later on in college, in a new career or a new city.
I can relate to her concern. When I was growing up in China, the pressure to be a dutiful daughter and a good student in a pre-described, non-negotiable way was so intense that I couldn't wait to go to college and leave my hometown as far behind as possible. Life in college had its own challenges, but I was happy and thrived on them, because finally I could be myself and in command of my own battle -- a battle that I had chosen to fight, I was willing to fight, and I enjoyed fighting. Nobody knowing my past "traditional" self helped tremendously because I felt free to explore even experiement different versions of self.
If Facebook were around then, would I have grown up in the same way? I doubt it if my old Facebook friends, knowingly or unknowingly, kept putting me back into my old social cocoon. A caterpillar can't evolve into a butterfly if it clings to its old shell. Breaking away from old social networks, sometimes, is necessary for young people to grow.
That's also the conclusion of Peggy Orenstein: "Something is drowned in that virtual coffee cup — an opportunity for insight, for growth through loneliness. Perhaps my nieces will find a new way to establish distance from their former selves, to clear space for introspection and transformation."