For college students, if it's Facebook, it's love

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For the Facebook generation, love now comes with a drop-down menu.

With profiles on the Facebook social networking site ( almost de rigueur on college campuses, students can define their relationship status with menu choices ranging from "married" to that perennial favorite, "It's complicated."

“It’s complicated” could also describe the emotional calculations people in their late teens and early 20s make as they decide whether their relationships are what they call “Facebook-worthy.”

For Stephanie Endicott and Marcus Smallegan, first year students at George Washington University, announcing to the world that they had found love in a college dorm was a no-brainer.

“It was important for me to share this with my friends since I’m so far away,” Endicott, attending school 3,000 miles

away from her home in Maple Valley, Washington, said as she clasped Smallegan’s hand on a park bench on the campus.

“Neither of us had been in a really good relationship before and ours turned really good really fast,” added Smallegan, who had posted a relationship on Facebook once before, only to have that girl move out of state and break up with him via a text message on his cell phone.

Stephanie Endicott and Marcus Smallegan, first-year students at George Washington University, display a photograph of themselves on their Facebook website, in Washington, Nov. 25, 2007. For the Facebook generation, love now comes with a drop-down menu. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Some of their friends, however, have had less harmonious Facebook experiences. Both Endicott and Smallegan know of other college students who thought they were in a relationship -- only to have it all blow up when they tried to link their two Facebook profiles as a couple, an option that requires the consent of both parties.

“It was this major emotional crisis breakdown,” Smallegan said of a close friend at a Midwestern university who was heartbroken when her cyberlink was rebuffed by a young man who thought they were “just friends.”

Not all students post their relationship status. For some, it’s a matter of privacy. For others, it’s all about marketability.

“I have NEVER changed my Facebook status -- it has always been single, even when I started to get involved with girls. I think it’s better this way, until you are VERY serious, because people look, people talk, etc., and unless it is super-serious it can ruin any chance with any other girl!” one young man, who asked that his name be withheld to avoid alienating his current and many ex-girlfriends, wrote in an e-mail.

But for many couples, being “Facebook-worthy” confers a status on a relationship.

When a couple was “going steady” in the 1950s, the young man might have let his girlfriend wear his Varsity team sweater or given her his fraternity pin. But the 1960s swept aside those rituals. Now the Facebook link has become a publicly-recognized symbol of a reasonably serious intent short of being engaged or moving in together.

“For those in a relationship, the theme that kept echoing was that Facebook made it official,” said Nicole Ellison, an assistant professor of telecommunication and information studies at Michigan State University who has studied social networking sites. “That was the term they used. And when the relationship fell apart, when you broke up on Facebook, that’s when the breakup was official.”

Facebook even produces a little red broken heart icon when a couple splits up.

Duke University student Adam Zell concurred. “Putting it on Facebook made it official,” said Zell, who had a “serious sit-down relationship talk” with his girlfriend last year after two or three months together. They made a joint decision to put “in a relationship” on Facebook, and link profiles.

Dave Berkman, who does mental health counseling at the University of Wisconsin clinic, finds that some students feel compelled to define themselves on a Facebook page, or to compulsively update their status over and over again.

“People are beginning to use it more than phones, more than text messages, more than instant messaging, even more than talking in person,” he said. “It speeds things up. People are prone to define where they are so they can show other people (online).”

If Facebook can certify a relationship, it can also destroy one. Ellison in her research learned of one young couple in a “Facebook-worthy” relationship. But he cheated with a young woman who naturally looked up his Facebook profile. When she saw he had an “official” Facebook girlfriend, she contacted the other woman.

“Then the two of them were in cahoots to make this guy’s life miserable,” Ellison said. “So if you are in a relationship and it’s listed on Facebook, don’t cheat.”

Reporting by Joanne Kenen; Editing by Eddie Evans