One of the new pastimes on the Interwebs is attempting to link social media to all manner of social ills, from premarital sex and drug use among teens to huge losses in economic productivity to Justin Bieber. While I won't deny that social media may have some unintended negative impacts, most of these fear-mongering reports turn out to be false alarms. In the latest iteration, chronic worriers and their friends in the news media are warning that social media is leading to divorce. Except, it isn't.
On the surface the claims are plausible enough: choosing even moderately open privacy settings on a Facebook account is basically a standing invitation to old flames and amorous strangers to get in touch, with all the potential for hanky panky this entails. I don't doubt that millions of illicit rendezvous have been enabled to some degree by Facebook and other social media ("honey, what's this Adult Friend Finder in the browser history?"). And in fact I've already written about divorce lawyers gathering incriminating evidence from social media.
And the statistics look pretty impressive: according to the latest data from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, fully 20% of divorces now involve Facebook in some way, and 80% of divorce lawyers say they have seen an increase in the number of divorces involving social media.
But like the other warnings about social media linking it to dire social ills, these reports are confusing cause and effect. At most, social media is just another way for individuals to pursue extramarital affairs, complementing the telephone, email, regular mail, matchbooks, cocktail napkins, and whatever other means of communication people used to set up trysts in the past (shortwave radio? semaphore code?). Nothing else has really changed: the basic deciding factor, as always, is the will of the individual -- either to stay faithful or to stray outside of marriage.
"Yes, but social media makes it easier to cheat, lowering barriers to infidelity and thus increasing the chances that someone will yield to temptation," I can hear the worriers worrying. But if that's the case, why has the divorce rate been dropping steadily over the last decade -- the same period which saw the rise of social media? According to academic sociologists, the number of divorces per 1,000 married women in the U.S. has dropped from a peak of 23 in 1979 to 20.9 in 1990, 19 in 2000, and 16.4 in 2009 (I suppose it's possible that spouses are more forgiving, so fewer cases of infidelity end in divorce, but I've seen no evidence to suggest social mores have loosened that much in the last two decades).