Credit: Istockphoto

IstockphotoFrom Health magazine
I was 10 minutes late taking my son to kindergarten this morning. Facebook! I blame Facebook!

OK, I blame myself for succumbing to this social-networking phenomenon described as “addictive,” “like crack,” and “my lifeline” by a few of my online friends. But my Facebook dependency is better compared with my relationship with a certain brand of diet soda: I can survive without it, but why, oh, why would I want to? If you are one of the 175 million people who are on Facebook, youre probably nodding your head in ashamed commiseration.

For years I railed passionately against Facebook and its like, arguing that it fostered fake friendships and virtual connections rather than genuine ones. But when it seemed like everyone was asking me, “Why arent you on Facebook?” I gave in to peer pressure and quickly became a fanatic. The truth is, Facebook serves as the ideal procrastination tool for me. (The only thing a writer enjoys more than writing is finding creative excuses to avoid writing.)

Case in point: Between typing that last paragraph and this one, I spent 1 hour and 22 minutes on Facebook. What did I do? I updated my status—“Megan is on Facebook instead of writing her essay for Health magazine about Facebook.” I gushed over photos of my adorable niece. I discovered that my neighbor has a migraine and a former co-worker met Fabio. I laughed out loud at a list of “25 Things” I didnt know about my cousin-in-law—“I get stage fright at urinals.”

To an outsider, this probably sounds like 82 minutes of nothing. But at least half of these virtual interactions inspired real connections that may not have otherwise occurred. For example, I asked my neighbor how her head was when I saw her putting out the garbage. And it goes both ways. When I ran into a Facebook–real life “crossover” friend, she responded to my status update by asking if she could help with this essay.

So is Facebook “a great way to keep in touch” or “a way to avoid actual communication,” as two more online friends defined it? Well, according to a recent University of California, Los Angeles, report, its both. “The costs may be the devaluing of real friendships and the reduction of face-to-face interaction,” says Patricia Greenfield, an expert in developmental psychology and media effects quoted in the study. “There are more relationships, but also more superficial relationships.”

If you ask me, that still amounts to a net gain. Everyone Ive asked agrees that Facebook is fantastic for staying in touch with far-flung friends and family. Moreover, it gives us all brief, but surprisingly touching snapshots of our loved ones day-to-day lives. And I personally appreciate it as a forum in which readers can share their thoughts about my work. (Hey, if you like this essay, just friend me!) The site has greatly strengthened bonds in both my virtual and real worlds. But if I had to choose between cultivating relationships on Facebook versus in real life, of course, its no contest. A laptop cant offer me a second slice of banana bread, laugh out loud at my jokes, or hug me back.

I still feel bad about arriving late to school today, and I vow not to let Facebook take precedence over my personal (or professional!) responsibilities in the future. But I will no longer feel guilty about my Facebook “me” time. And I know just the place to go for support: I just became the 2,600th member to join a Facebook group called “Not now, Honey, Mommys Facebooking …”