by Carolyn Jabs
Facebook has hijacked the word “friend.” Turning friendship into something that can be created with a click makes it harder for young people to think about the subtle distinctions between acquaintances, classmates, companions, buddies, mentors and authority figures.
Parents know that having reliable friends is an essential part of healthy development. That’s why so much effort goes into coordinating playdates when kids are little and supervising social occasions when they get older. These experiences give parents opportunities to talk to kids about how to recognize and nurture friendships.
Once kids go online, however, those conversations often end. That makes parents nervous so many ask to be their childs’ “friend” on Facebook. According to a recent Kaplan survey, two-thirds of teens with a Facebook account are friends with their parents online. Sixteen percent of the teens accepted a parent’s friend request because it was the pre-condition for a Facebook account.
Having a parent as a friend may be a good idea for younger teens who are just getting the hang of social networking. At some point, however, too much parental scrutiny inhibits healthy development on Facebook just as it does in other parts of a young person’s life. The quickest way to grasp this concept is to imagine your own parents lurking at the margins of your adolescent life and posting comments about whatever they wished.
The truth is that making friends involves risk. In real life as well as Facebook, you may trust someone who isn’t trustworthy. But micromanaging isn’t the best way for parents to protect kids, either on or offline. Instead, parents should help kids develop the self-protective skills by starting conversations about topics like these:
Quantity. British anthropologist Jill Dunbar has theorized that, because of the size of the human brain, people can sustain active social relationships with a limited number of people. Dunbar’s number is often quoted as 150, which, interestingly, corresponds to the 130 friends the average user has on Facebook.
Most teens, however, accept hundreds of friends.Often young people have intuitive understanding that, once they reach a certain tipping point, what happens on Facebook is actually a performance in front of an audience filled with acquaintances. Like it or not, your child is creating what marketing people call a “brand.” What will people associate with his or her name? What will he or she stand for?
Selectivity. It might seem that the best way to keep Facebook meaningful would be to limit the number of “friends.” That’s trickier than it seems.
Talk to your child about how he or she decides who makes the cut as a Facebook friend. Some people are obvious no-no’s. If your child doesn’t actually know that “friend of a friend,” there’s no reason to give them access to the personal details available on a typical Facebook page. Other questions don’t have such obvious answers. Is it cool or pointless to be friends with someone who has thousands of friends? Should a Facebook friend share your interests — or at least your taste in music? Are there characteristics that automatically put someone on the “Ignore” list?
This also gets into the tricky territory of defriending, a process of pruning that is actually quite easy. On every Profile page, there’s a button called “Unfriend” at the bottom of the left column. The other person won’t even know what’s happened unless they’ve activated an unfriend app. According to research at the University of Colorado, young people typically defriend others because their posts are too frequent, boring or obnoxious. Again, this is a great topic for conversation. Does your teen use the unfriending option? Has he or she been unfriended? Was it traumatic or no big deal?
Boundaries. For users between 13 and 17, Facebook automatically sets conservative privacy settings so much of what they post won’t appear on their public profile. That doesn’t mean it won’t leak into the wider world. Whatever your child posts can show up on the wall of friends where people your child doesn’t know can see it.
Fortunately, Facebook has developed a more robust set of privacy tools. To find them, click on Account in the upper right corner and then on Privacy Settings. Many of the most interesting tools are in the Customize Settings section. Here you and your child can fine-tune decisions not only about what information people can see on his or her page but also on what personal information you’ll allow on pages of friends.
Another recent feature allows Facebook users to make sub-groups of friends by going to Create Lists in the Edit Friends section. Then, you can decide whether a specific list should or shouldn’t see profile information, posts and/or photos.
Many parents want to monitor everything that happens on Facebook but, for older teens, that’s as counter-productive as insisting that you need to personally chaperone every party or outing with friends.
“You have to start talking about appropriate technology use early and often and build trust, so that when there is a problem, whether it is being bullied or seeing a disturbing image, your child will talk to you about it,” says Dr. Larry D. Rosen, who spoke recently on the topic at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. “If you feel that you have to surreptitiously monitor your child’s social networking, you are wasting your time. Your child will find a workaround in a matter of minutes.”
Carolyn Jabs, MA, has been writing about family technology for more than 15 years.