My Child, My "Friend": Parenting in the Age of Facebook

7 years ago
Mother helping son with homework with laptop computer

After months of discussions, deliberations and negotiations, I finally gave in.

I let my oldest child join Facebook.

I had spent the past two years telling him it’s completely unnecessary, it’s a waste of time, it’s more appropriate in high school or college, and that it’s just one more playground of vulnerability.  I still hold every bit of this to be true.

I am also, actually, very glad that he is on Facebook.

As a thirteen-year-old in his last year of middle school, my son has a veritable lifetime of on-line exposure and virtual social networking ahead of him.  And yes, as we’ve seen over the past months, that exposure and those interactions can be hurtful, dangerous and even tragic.

There are middle schoolers caught distributing explicit photos of themselves or others with their cell phones.  There are high schoolers expelled for bullying on Facebook.  There are graduates with job offers rescinded because of pictures others posted of them online.  There are employees who have lost their jobs because of their blogs.  And there are individuals who have taken their own lives because their privacy was no longer theirs.

That’s why I’m happy to have my teenager experiment and make mistakes while the computer sits on a desk just steps from the kitchen table rather than in a dorm room hundreds of miles away.

We start our kids on bicycles with training wheels, we read to them before they can sing the alphabet, and we require them to have a learner’s permit before putting them behind the wheel of a car. Yet many parents think nothing of handing a child a laptop and telling themselves, “It’s educational.”  (I’m sure the parents of the Duke co-ed whose PowerPoint presentation on the sexual attributes of her 13 partners did not find the viral sensation “educational.”)

I think lessons about the responsibility and power that can come with technology and social media should be learned and practiced at home first.  (Same goes for the privilege and dangers of alcohol, but that’s an issue for another day.)

For an adolescent, there’s the initial thrill of “joining” Facebook.  You’re a member of something.  You’re wanted.  You have friends.  In fact, if you are thirteen, you have hundreds of friends.  Overnight.

You get to say things.  Funny things.  Dumb things.  And sometimes really, really dumb funny things.

I joined Facebook a few years ago largely as research for an article.  But I also knew I was joining to be there first, before my son wanted in. 

Like most parents I know, I let him join Facebook on the condition that he not only had to be my “friend” (thanks for that bit of generosity there, son), but also that I be granted complete access to his page if I ever asked for it.  We set up the account together and talked through each of the privacy options that came up.

Obviously, the questions raise the issues of protecting children’s safety on the internet, the sexual exploitation of minors, and identity theft.  Those were the easy ones. The more significant conversations were about taking responsibility for one’s online identity and behavior and understanding the meaning of privacy and a private life.  And just as important, respect for the privacy and private lives of others.

Sure, Facebook, texting, instant messaging and other social media sites are more arenas in which students can bully, tease and hurt each other.

I assert that the opposite is also true.  It is easy and powerful to write “great game today” on someone’s Facebook page.  And it can be supremely validating when an older schoolmate or a girl writes on your page, “Yoooooo! So happy you’re here.”

Some parents and schools decry that students feel safer bullying online because it is faceless and takes just a few keyboard strokes and a click of the mouse. But what of a student who feels safer standing up for him or herself online because it is faceless?  From simple statements of “likes” and “dislikes” and the clever or not-so-clever status updates, each is a valuable exercise in self-expression.

I watched as my son updated his “friends” that he had completed his homework and was moving on to a favorite television show. (Let’s accept that why anyone needs to know this – or what my “friends” have just purchased at Costco – is beside the point.)  Within an hour he’d amassed all kinds of comments passing judgment on his choice of entertainment. At the lunch table, he might have been stunned into silence and personal doubt, but with the benefit of a screen and a deep breath, he was able to spout back in his own defense and smile.

Knowing that technology will spread into nearly every corner of my children’s lives as they get older, I expect that they will feel very at home online.

And home is where I want them to learn that friendship is a human relationship, not a technological transaction.  And that privacy is a gift to be guarded and respected, not a setting on a computer.

Molly Baker writes at http://www.playgroupwithsylviaplath.com and is a freelance reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The Philad

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