Breaking Up Is So Very Hard to Do, Except on Facebook

PHOTO: Melissa and William Ng of Cincinnati have witnessed public break-ups on Facebook. Youth experts say teens should think about the consequences of ending relationships online instead of face-to-face.PlayCourtesy Ng family
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Melissa Ng, an 18-year-old college-bound student from Cincinnati, was horrified when her friend told her about how her boyfriend broke up with her on Facebook.

"He changed his relationship status right away," said Ng, who will study film at University of Southern California this fall. "She was upset about it. I think there must be a way you can take your relationship status down without it showing up as a notification on everybody's news feed and not be a public thing people can comment on."

"He should have done it privately," she said. "My friend didn't have time to sort things out herself. I think it's always better if you talk about it, whoever does the breaking up. People need to be more sensitive."

And then there are the nasty comments that follow a public break-up, or friends "like" the split, leading the wounded party to question the sincerity of their friends in the first place.

"Breaking up is huge in anybody's life," said Susan Lipkins, a psychologist from Long Island, N.Y., who specializes in adolescents. "It's tough on everybody and it's something that plagues us throughout our lives."

"What Facebook does is it has extended the dimensions of a relationship," she said. "It's used in wonderful ways to be supportive, meeting people, connecting and finding more about a person you are dating, giving you a lot of information about them and their past."

"But it can also be negative when you find out that person has hooked up with someone else or you get information that is used against them," she said.

Just last month, the Boston Public Health Commission deemed the topic important enough to invite 200 teens from all over the state to a conference: the Break-Up Summit.

"We want young people to engage in healthy relationships and part of it is breaking up, an oft-neglected area because adults are not comfortable, nor do they have the skills," said Casey Corcoran, director of the commission's Start Strong initiative. "Nobody's talking about it."

Corcoran, who has worked as a teacher and with abusive men, said that learning break-up skills can also lead to healthier online and offline relationships.

"It helps kids do pre-planning and think about how they want their relationship represented online," said Corcoran. "What does it mean if I put my picture up and tag them? When we break up, do I save or delete them? Young people don't differentiate as much as adults between online and offline life. ... One of the wonderful things about the adolescent brain is impulsivity. And these [social networking] tools drive on impulsivity."

"A lot of fights break out on Facebook and most of them end badly," said Olivia Cook, a middle schooler from Cranbury, N.J. She said "mass defriending" could be considered bullying.

Massachusetts has struggled with several cases of online bullying, including the suicide death of 14-year-old Phoebe Prince, a recent Irish immigrant who hanged herself in 2010 after enduring months of torment by fellow students at South Hadley High School via text message and Facebook.

Online Dating: 'New Spectator Sport'

Corcoran said Boston's public health initiative is about "prevention, prevention, prevention."

"What our teens see and point out is that online relationships are the new spectator sport," he said. "Everyone gets to have opinions and comments on something that, in fact, should be dealt with between two people."

"The program helps them think about their online lives and how it impacts other people," said Corcoran. "Hopefully, in friends and dating, it will make them more thoughtful in how they treat people online and offline."

The program is sponsored by a national program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships."Though its focus is primarily on 11- to 14-year-olds, the break-up summit reached out to their "influencers" -- high school students.

"We want to equip them with as many healthy real life skills before they get into a relationship," said Corcoran.

The second annual conference was led primarily by teens themselves, peer leaders who had undergone extensive summer training and work 10 hours a week during the school year in city youth centers.

"I think it's important that everyone know about healthy break-up skills, because it hasn't been discussed," said Mileena Torres, one of the summit's teen leaders. "Both people feel comfortable, communicate, respect and trust each other."

"If you have the option of face-to-face, instead of the easy way out, both people get closure in a relationship," said Torres, 17, who will be a senior at Boston Latin high school. "We see that texting break-ups are common. We don't want to see the person and we want it to be over with and send a quick message and it's done. But the other person gets the feeling of unfinished business."

They warn that, in the case of an abusive relationship, face-to-face should not be used.

"We understand safety is the number one priority for anybody," she said.

"We see a lot of teens breaking up via text message or Facebook and it's very public unless you do it in the inbox," she said. "If you change your relationship status, everybody sees it and can comment or 'like' it, and it can be problematic if you see a friend likes that you broke up with the girl."

The summit provided the teens with a rating system illustrated with cell phone bars: 5, for a face-to-face break-up, which allows for body language, tone of voice and privacy; 4, via cell phone which lacks the visual; 3, by email, which is still private; 2 by text, which limits characters; and 1 on Facebook, where you "shout it to the world."

All participants also received a button with a little broken heart -- "Face It, Don't Facebook It."

But not all teens are naysayers about breaking up on Facebook. Melissa Ng's 16-year-old brother, William, said a public split can be comforting.

"One of my friends broke up on Facebook," he said. "They had been dating for maybe six months and then, all of a sudden, it ended and both changed their relationship status. Everyone was commenting, making them feel better. They were going through a hard time. They said, 'It's OK,' and, 'Want to call me and talk about it?'"