Friend Feed: We talk to Facebook users (and self-proclaimed addicts) about how the social networking site fits into their lives. Download the video as a podcast for your portable device: http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/newsweek-video/id88000805
This week Facebook will register its 500 millionth member. It's a milestone both significant and meaningless: yes, it's a reminder of just how big the social-media giant has become, but really—did we need reminding? That Facebook is a part of many Americans' daily lives is clear. But how it's affecting those lives is still being examined. We know that Facebook can be good for your health, and that it can make everything from networking to sharing photos easier. But there's also a potentially sinister side, even aside from dubious privacy issues. Below, 10 ways that Facebook can do more harm than good.
1. You'll be reunited with your biological parents. This can be good news, but it's not always. Take Prince Sagala, who found her biological children on Facebook—children she alleges were kidnapped more than a decade ago by her ex-husband. The mom and kids are now reunited. The only problem: the kids grew up with their dad and don't want anything to do with the parent who now has custody. And in an even more horrifying story, Aimee Sword was sentenced to nine to 30 years in prison recently for sexually abusing her 15-year-old biological son, whom she tracked down on Facebook.
2. Your creditors can track you down. Creditors use Facebook as a way to both track the movements of debtors and keep their eyes on any potential assets that could be seized to cover those debts. At first, lenders may use Facebook to determine whether you're a worthy candidate for a loan. But should you come to owe a creditor money, the company can track you down and discover your assets by monitoring your Facebook feed.
3. Your insurers can deny your claims. Remember the woman who was receiving workers' compensation for depression, only to be "outed" by Facebook pictures of her smiling? Her insurance benefits were cut off, with insurers saying that her photos showed she was ready to return to work. That's left attorneys who argue for disability benefits concerned. Many now advise against giving away too much on Facebook.
4. Your ex can use it against you in a divorce. Facebook is a popular tool for divorce attorneys, who comb pages of their clients' spouses for evidence of neglect, infidelity, or deception. (One study suggests that Facebook comes up in one out of five new divorce petitions). Mashable says a woman lost custody of her children after her ex proved she was spending time tending her crops on Farmville instead of spending quality time with her kids, while divorce lawyers have given multiple interviews extolling the site's virtues as a way to air damaging dirty laundry.
5. It could make you depressed. Researchers from Stony Brook University in New York found that teenage girls who spend the most time discussing their lives with friends were more likely to be depressed. Apparently, spending too much time dwelling on gossip and your problems can make you feel worse, not better. The researchers didn't study Facebook in particular, but they indicated that social-networking sites such as Facebook made it easier for people to be in constant contact with friends and perpetuate the unhealthy discussions.
6. It can cost you a job. A British survey of employers found that half of those polled had turned down job candidates once something unsavory about that candidate surfaced on Facebook. (Examples include tales of drunkenness, photos of illegal activity, and bad grammar.) In the U.S., 20 percent of employers admit to scoping out the Facebook pages of potential job candidates, while 9 percent say they're going to start soon.
7. It can out you to your family. Even if you're discreet on Facebook, your loose-lipped friends might not be and could post comments on your wall that betray your secrets. But there are also more insidious outings going on: MIT students designed an algorithm that successfully pinpointed gay users by analyzing how many of their friends were gay.
8. It can make it easier for your stalker or abusive partner to follow your movements. Let's be honest: if there weren't Facebook, abusers would find another trigger to set off their rage. But Facebook has made it easier for these people to keep tabs on their victims and respond to their movements, even after the victim has tried to sever ties. In one particularly sad case, a woman who changed her Facebook status to "single" was killed by her husband, from whom she had separated. After seeing her status, he broke into her home and stabbed her repeatedly.
9. You can be sued for libel. There are already several cases of libel suits over content posted on Facebook. In Britain, where libel is easier to prove than in the U.S., a businessman won £22,000 when a former classmate created a fake profile full of defamatory information. Stateside, an Ohio-area band sued a Facebook "hate group," and a Michigan towing company sued a student who created a Facebook page alleging that the company tows legally parked cars. (The company says those claims are false.) So far, the law appears to be on the poster's side. But it's still a hassle.
10. Your kids could be targeted by predators. After a teenage girl in England was murdered by a sex offender who posed as a teenager on Facebook, the British version of the site added a "panic button" that allows teens to report any unwanted attention—including cyber-bullying—directly to the authorities. But the button is not yet on U.S. or other international versions of Facebook, and it's unclear whether the company plans to add it.
Know of other examples? Leave them in the comments below.