Social networking, which seems to have magically appeared on the stage only about 10 years ago, virtually dominates many American lives today, from the way we receive information, communicate, interact with one another to the way we do business.

In many cases, we tweet, text, link-in rather than talk. We carry electronic tablets to read books, magazines and newspapers, and we scroll through the Internet to catch up on what’s happening around our cities, nation and world.

Technology has indeed made the world flat. Our heroes today are often computer geeks–Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and, to a lesser extent, Google founders Larry Page, Sergey Brin.

Our lives are circumscribed by such social networking sites as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, LinkedIn and numerous others.

A recent study by the Neilsen Co. found that social networking takes up more than 10 percent of the time that Americans spend online, with emailing ranking as the most popular mobile Internet activity.

Few would deny that a lot of good has come from these new forms of technology. Many businesspeople can say that even in the face of recession they have seen increases in sales due to their ability to reach untold numbers in cyberspace and better showcase their products and services. Long-lost family members and friends credit these sites for reuniting them. Some couples even meet their matches online.

But there are just as many downsides as upsides to social media–lack of privacy, loss of jobs to technology, the battle to maintain healthy human interaction, the inability to control what children see online and with whom they communicate, social media addiction, and the effects that it has on the environment.

Many people brush off any concerns about the lack of privacy, saying that people only expose as much as they want and insist that most forms of social media are equipped with privacy settings so individuals determine what strangers can know about them. But even with these nifty little privacy tools, it is still quite easy to get very private information on complete strangers.

Lately there has been a buzz arising for “Do Not Track” legislation. This isn’t meant so much to stop Internet sleuths from tracking you, but more than likely to stop the giant companies who control these very forms of interconnectedness such as Facebook, Yahoo and Google from misusing your information.

Facebook has admitted that it tracks logged-in members, logged-off members and even non-members in a series of interviews with Byron Acohido in USA TODAY.

Facebook inserts a tracking cookie into your browser. If you have ever visited any Facebook page, even if you have never opened an account, Facebook keeps a running log of site preferences every time someone visits a webpage that has a Facebook “Like” button, or another Facebook plug-in. This plug-in works in conjunction with the cookie to alert Facebook of the date, time, web address of the page they went to, their IP address, screen resolution, operating system and browser version. In essence, by visiting Facebook they have just given Facebook the ability to create a profile of their Internet preferences, and Facebook can connect that to their computer’s unique IP address. Google, Yahoo, and a plethora of other sites have similar capabilities.

Even with certain privacy settings, the average person can gain a lot of intel about you just by visiting the different social networking sites that you have joined. Things such as your full name, birth date, place of business, sexual orientation, a laundry list of your favorite things to do and places to hang out, hundreds of photos of you, and in many cases even your relatives, and their information are there at the click of a button.

Yes, it’s all out there in the ether, and anyone can access it.

With an address and access to Google Earth, anyone can access satellite imaging to get photos of another person’s home. Unless disabled, Twitter actually gives the exact location of users when they tweet, down to the longitude/latitude. These things are especially dangerous when one considers how easy this makes it for hackers, identity thieves, and sexual predators to track a person’s every move.

According to a report released by the United States Government Printing Office, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its privacy report in December 2010, it discussed the possibility of providing consumers, in a uniform and comprehensive way, with the choice of whether to allow the collection and use of data regarding their online searching and browsing activities. However, the Commission admitted that it lacked the authority to establish such a requirement without congressional authorization. A bill introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) may, if passed, provide the necessary authorization.

H.R. 654, titled the “Do Not Track Me Online Act,” would require the FTC to establish standards for an online opt-out mechanism that would allow consumers to effectively and easily prohibit the collection or use of any “covered information.”

The bill would also require “covered entities” (a covered entity is defined as a person engaged in interstate commerce that collects or stores online data containing covered information) to disclose their information-collection practices, including the names of those with whom the entities disclose such information. The bill allows, but does not require, the FTC to develop rules requiring covered entities to provide consumers with access to their data.

Needless to say technology and social networking have made it extremely important, but increasingly difficult, to keep private information private. And, for the things that aren’t as easy to protect, citizens should tell their congressperson to back “Do Not Track” legislation.

Social networking also becomes a problem when it bleeds over into work time. The majority of activity on social networking sites occurs between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., the time of day when most people should be studying or working. Worse, during work hours, likely means that networking is done on company computers, Blackberry phones, and other company resources.

Aside from tweeting away when they should be working, many people have lost their jobs for saying things about their bosses, coworkers, and customers or divulging privileged company information through social networks for the world to see.

Even potential employees have to be cautious of what they post now that many employers use these social media sites as hiring resources when reviewing applicants. According to employment lawyer George Lenard, social networking sites can serve companies in two primary functions:

1) Identifying potential job candidates. Employers may use these social electronic databases to search for individuals with a certain level of education, work experience, personal interests, and/or anything else that might be a company asset.

2) Background checking, where “disqualifying information” may be available, such as proof of illegal drug use or behavior the company would consider undesirable in an employee.

Is this invasion of privacy? No. Unlike eavesdropping on a phone call, this process is completely legal because the information is already available to the public. In short, employers want to find out all they can about who’s working for their company, and by carelessly posting personal information, some people may just make it a lot easier for them.

Another major downside to social media is its dehumanizing effect on personal relationships. People simply don’t talk as much as they used to, and are instead preoccupied with the newest application on their iPhone, or keeping track of what everyone is talking about on Twitter. Families sit down to dinner silently while everyone texts, checks emails, or talks on the phone.

Increasing research on social media’s effects on human interaction has revealed the development of antisocial behavior, narcissism and a slew of other character flaws and negative outcomes.

Overdosing on Facebook may lead to the development of psychological disorders in teens, according to a recent study conducted by Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge.

In a presentation titled, “Poke Me: How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids,” Rosen presented his findings based on a number of computer-based surveys distributed to 1,000 adolescents and his 15-minute observations of 300 teens in the act of studying.

Some of the negative side effects of Facebook use for teens Rosen cited include:

*Development of narcissism in teens who often use Facebook;

*Presence of other psychological disorders, including antisocial behaviors, mania and aggressive tendencies in teens who have a strong Facebook presence;

*Increased absence from school and likelihood of developing stomachaches, sleeping problems, anxiety and depression, in teens who “overdose” on technology on a daily basis, including Facebook and video games;

*Lower grades for middle school, high school and college students who checked Facebook at least once during a 15-minute study period;

*Lower reading retention rates for students who most frequently had Facebook open on their computers during the 15-minute study period

Keeping up with what is going on with friends and loved ones based solely on texting and social networking also can be a problem because of the emotion that cannot be conveyed to one another technologically. Sometimes all it takes is a typo to cause a fight, end a relationship and, in extreme cases, cause death.

Neil Brook stabbed his friend and neighbor Josef Witkowski to death early last year in Salford, Manchester, England, after the victim’s unintentional, auto-corrected text message, translated into an insult, according to the Daily Mail, a British tabloid newspaper. Witkowski died after being left with more than 100 injuries following the knife attack. Brook is now in jail after being found guilty of manslaughter.

According to EarthTalk, an informational environmental blog and television show, the environmental impact of so much online time really boils down to energy usage, which in turn affects the amount of greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere.

Each person can make a favorable impact on the environment by limiting computer time and shutting computers down or putting them into sleep mode when they aren’t being used. Also, when shopping for a new computer, consumers and businesses alike can opt for models certified by the federal government as energy efficient with the Energy Star label. If all computers sold in the U.S. met Energy Star requirements, Americans could pocket $1.8 billion annually in saved energy costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 2 million cars off the road, according to a report by EarthTalk.

When discussing the amount of time individuals spend online and on handheld devices engaging in texting and other social media/networking activities, the question arises: how much is too much, and can you be addicted to these activities?

Take driving for example. Most people would agree that using mobile devices while driving is dangerous, and most people know differing states have legislation that bans such activity altogether. Yet, a surprising number of individuals still risk texting and talking on the phone while operating a motor vehicle. Here are some statistics found in a report done by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.:

*Distraction from cell phone use while driving (hand-held or hands-free) extends a driver’s reaction as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. (University of Utah)

*The No. 1 source of driver inattention is use of a wireless device. (Virginia Tech/NHTSA)

*Drivers that use cell phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves, according to NHTSA, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

*10 percent of drivers age 16 to 24 years old are on their phone at any given time.

*Driving while distracted is a factor in 25 percent of police reported crashes.
*Driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent. (Carnegie Mellon).

On May 20, 2010, Maryland State Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law Senate Bill 321, which prohibits the use of hand-held devices while driving. This occurred at the very early beginnings of the state’s aggressive distracted-driver legislation. The law, which went into effect in October 2010, is currently only enforceable as a secondary offense, meaning that a driver must be breaking another traffic law before being cited for the use of a hand-held device. As time passes, it is likely that more states will adopt this type of law and most likely enforce it as a primary offense.

While driving is probably the most dangerous time to showcase a social media addiction, it isn’t the only time a problem occurs. A recent study by the University of Life Sciences in Prague, Czechoslovakia, analyzed Facebook-related academic procrastination. Though based on a sample too small to draw any general conclusions, one interesting finding of the research was that people tended to be unaware of just how much time they really spend on Facebook, and the effect this might have on their academic performance.

On the other hand, it has been noted that there may be a correlation between low self-esteem and a sense of social inadequacy and social network addiction. According to a study done by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Facebook addicts (a category defined by reportedly spending more than four hours everyday on Facebook) had a higher incidence of depression and lower physical and general self-esteem levels than less frequent Facebook users.

While social network addiction is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), many researchers advocate its inclusion in DSM V, which is currently under way.

Ibrahim Husain, founder and editor of TwentiesLife.com, an online lifestyle magazine geared towards improving the lives of 20-somethings everywhere and in all aspects of life, offered a list of ways to help monitor social network use,

*Track your time online. The simplest way to ensure you aren’t wasting time in any one place is to monitor your time. Use a stopwatch and set a limit. When time is up, log out, regardless of what’s left. There is always tomorrow.

*Remember the telephone. A call to a friend works just as well as a Facebook message, and it is real human interaction, something we are losing touch with.

*Go outside. Get away from your portal to the network.

*Limit your memberships. There is no need for memberships to 15 different networks. In fact, there is no need for memberships on sites which duplicate one another. Choose Facebook or Myspace, but not both. Or either Digg, or StumbleUpon. This will probably cut your memberships in half, and hopefully cut the time spent on them also.

*Prioritize. Use these tools only when your work has been done, or during down time. Don’t spend time updating profiles or uploading pictures when there is work before you. This will not only save time and increase your productivity, but will build self-discipline as well.