Facebook. Over one billion people are active on the social media site. It's changing the way we communicate, do business, and live our lives.

If you're on Facebook, you're connected to the rest of the world in ways we could never have imagined 20 years ago. Forget six degrees of separation, it's 3.57 for people using the network.

And the social and emotional impact of it: well, it's huge. Critics argue that Facebook ruins relationships, causes addiction, encourages isolation, makes you a jerk, lose friends, and become depressed.

Facebook haters point to people being bullied, developing low self-esteem and/or overblown egos, accessing personal information, exposing us to superficial memes, inaccuracies and harmful influences, fuelling insecurities and creating all kinds of issues and complications in people's lives. There's some truth in all of that. A lot of research has been done to show the negative impacts.

After all, Facebook reflects everyday life. Kind of reminds me a little about how we in the Western world seem to really like to study depression, but rarely do we hear of in-depth studies of happiness. What we focus on grows.

There are those of us who prefer to see how Facebook can build and create relationships, foster new ones, decrease isolation, increase empathy and understanding, keep us in the international news loop, reunite us with long-lost loved ones, introduce us to worlds of information, make us laugh, provide affirmation on especially bad days, bring attention to important matters, share resources, educate on a variety of topics, enlighten us, inspire us, bring us together, even save lives.

Tips for a happier experience

My experience since logging on seven years ago, when there were a measly 400 million active users, has covered much of that very diverse ground: the good, the bad, and the ugly, but mostly the good. I've learned a thing or two about ways to navigate and ensure a healthier, happier Facebook experience.

Privacy settings are critical if you care about who has access to your information. Over 60 per cent of Facebook profiles are automatically set to be visible to the public, which means anyone can access the profiles that users have updated.

Friend requests from people you've never heard of and with whom you have no mutual friends (except for those who indiscriminately accept everyone), especially when their profile pic is one that looks like it was cut and pasted from a tropical resort page, are best ignored or deleted.

There is a very real danger of developing an addiction to Facebook. I openly admit to living with that one. But I'm OK with it. Why? Because it enriches and enhances my life in multiple ways.

In some circles, that's not cool to say, but it has increased my understanding of so many things I would not have learned any other way.

As an avid user, I've given and received loads of helpful and valuable information. I've seen lost children found and returned to loved ones, observed incredible acts of kindness in the form of fundraisers and other special events to benefit people in need, read countless blogs and interesting postings from academics, artists, and other incredibly fascinating people.

Moments of kindness

I've found links to worthwhile reading, collections of hilarious pet videos (a dose of silly is good for the heart now and then), old family photos posted by distant relatives no longer distant because of Facebook, maintained connections with people from all over the world because geographical boundaries are no longer an issue.

Instant communication is a reality. Now maybe it's because I'm over 50, but I continue to be nothing short of amazed at what this technology has given our new generations. A gift, and it should be cherished as such. Opportunities for collective grieving, collective celebrations, collective compassion. On Facebook, I've seen some of the loveliest moments of kindness and big-heartedness feed the spirit and the mind, and secure a sense of community.

Facebook doesn't have to be contributing to our young people looking down at their phones and ignoring each other. It can, in fact, encourage those same faces to look up and into the eyes of another, to chat face-to-face about things they've learned on this amazingly powerful social network and beyond.

Why not take advantage of this incredible tool to educate people on how to use it to build understanding, gain skills, provide resources and everyday inspiration, rather than allow it to break us apart? It has the capacity, I think, to bring us back together.

Janine LeGal is a Winnipeg freelance writer and a grassroots activist.