An Article by Dr. Roni Sandler Cohen-Sandler
These days, as more and more adults are finding their way on social media (some even before their young children or tweens), families are facing increasing dilemmas. If your kids are now on Facebook, you may well be grappling with the issue of whether to be Facebook friends with them, or its corollary, whether to accept friend requests from your teens’ pals. To gather more information about this subject, I consulted experts—that is, millennials in their twenties. After much discussion, I learned what might motivate parents—and sometimes teens—to be Facebook friends as well as a multitude of advantages, disadvantages, and complications of doing so. It behooves all adults to consider the issues extremely thoughtfully before either friending (i.e., asking to be Facebook friends with) or accepting friend requests from our own teens and, above all, their peers.
Your Kid Wants to Friend YOU?
Although this might surprise you, some teens and tweens who in real life shun conversation with their mothers and fathers actually do friend request their parents. These kids are not desperate to tally up more Facebook friends; one possibility is that they’re in the habit of friending everyone and haven’t specifically excluded their parents. Given how differently friendship is defined on Facebook, this might inspire you to have a discussion with your teen about what constitutes a friend and why it’s important to be discriminating about one’s friends online. While being Facebook friends isn’t the same as being real life friends, it isn’t nothing, either; online friends may have the opportunity to see your teens’ information, including who their friends are, and to write on their walls and send them posts that others might see.
If your teen sends you a friend request, it might also be because Facebook offers a vehicle for greater connection, perhaps more easily or comfortably than face-to-face communication. It’s the same reason why many families send texts or emails for things that are hard to say in person. Maybe your son just wants you to be aware of what music he’s listening to or your daughter is interested in showing you what her friends are writing on her wall. Of course, you don’t need to be Facebook friends with your kids to see this; you can simply ask them to log in to their accounts and show you what’s on the screen themselves. But by giving you the right to see whatever information is out there, it can be a way to get desired validation or earn your trust. Also, consider the possibility that your teen may also want to use the Book to monitor what you`re up to; the access granted on Facebook can be a two-way street.
Why You Want to Friend Your Kid
If being Facebook friends with your teen is your idea—perhaps even a requirement for your son or daughter to sign up for their own account—it’s wise to think carefully about your motivations. What are you hoping to accomplish? Here are some of parents’ most common goals:
• Keeping tabs on your teens’ connections
• Monitoring their social activities
• Being cool
• Showing how much you care about them
• Getting external validation from other Facebook users
• Joining the younger generation
• Learning more about the Book to better advise your teens how to use it responsibly
For divorced parents, Facebook can be a great way to remain an active part of kids’ lives by posting or viewing photos and videos on each other’s walls. Although many teens would be horrified, as they mature into young adulthood apparently the stigma of family pictures gradually fades and even takes on greater cache.
• Increases trust. Facebook is a porthole through which you can view your teen’s social life, if they allow you. Especially during high school, when presumably teens are given a longer leash, you can allay some of your fears about their greater autonomy by learning more about what they’re doing. It’s also more compelling to see their social life in photos as opposed to merely hearing about it. When it comes to the adolescent social world, a picture may in fact be worth a thousand words (unless information is misconstrued—see below).
• Provides proof. If called upon, Facebook can provide evidence of kids’ whereabouts; the tags on their own and their friends’ photos are stamped with where they are, the name of the people they are socializing with, and the date and time when events took place. (Note: According to my experts, however, this is not foolproof, as tags may be faked by kids who know their parents will be checking.)
• Exposes lies. On the other hand, access to Facebook pages can backfire. When kids try to deceive you—say, by denying they attended a forbidden concert or house party, Facebook can just as easily expose their lies. Then you have to be prepared to deal with the fallout, which may include shattered trust and its effects on your relationship with your teen.
• Illuminates potential problems. Being Facebook friends with your teen gives you the chance to see suggestive or inappropriate posts and tags—and, therefore, to address them immediately. Chances are, if you believe something inappropriate or illegal was going on, other people will too. If your teen protests that photos are innocent, it’s important to point out that their teachers, coaches, and friends’ parents also can get the wrong impression. The burden of privacy should be on your teen; they must learn to limit certain people’s access to their Facebook (e.g., excluding them from seeing photos). You’re thereby teaching critical lessons that can save your teen from later embarrassment or worse when future employers Google them.
What About Friending Your Teens’ Friends?
Here is where issues get much thornier. In my view, the biggest concern is whether friending your kids’ friends intrudes upon natural boundaries and therefore interferes with their social development. As they separate and individuate from their families during adolescence, teens’ peer relationships become increasingly important. When you were a teen, you probably spent hours chatting with friends on the phone or hanging out in someone’s basement, where you carved out your own social world away from the prying eyes of adults. Facebook, with its goal of facilitating connections, makes it harder to maintain boundaries between adults and teens (and also between adults’ personal and business worlds, but that is another story). Consider these issues before accepting friend requests from your teens’ peers:
• Are you really friends? On Facebook, the term friend is used to describe all contacts. But ask yourself if you are friends with your child`s friend in real life. Chances are, the answer is no. If you wouldn’t phone or text your teen’s buddy, being Facebook friends might violate that same boundary. Reading what your children’s friends post to their walls is not all that different from your parents picking up the home telephone when you were a teen and joining your conversations with your friends.
• Awkwardness—or worse—can ensue. When Facebook friends cross generational and/or gender lines, lines of propriety may become blurred. For example, a father becoming Facebook friends with his teen daughter’s best girlfriend could well be seen as inappropriate, make people uncomfortable, or cause teens to declare, “That’s just weird” or “Creepy!” Plus, what if your teen has a falling out with the friend? Are you obligated to unfriend her? And if you do, what meaning would that have? You could also create an awkward situation for your teens if you friend request one of their friends who is unsure about accepting, doesn’t want to accept, or even feels obligated to accept. That teen could become uncomfortable about coming over to your house—either while your friend request is dangling or after making a decision about it.
• Everybody knows. Whatever you do on Facebook, realize that everyone knows. Unless you change the default setting, all Facebook users can see who your friends are. Imagine how you would feel if everyone could see the entire Contacts folder on your computer or cell phone.
• What to do with info? When you’re Facebook friends with your kids’ friends, you may see something on one of their pages that concerns or even alarms you. You’re then in the position of struggling with what to do about it. Is this something you should tell the child’s parents? Do you keep quiet? How will this affect your relationship with your own teen? Knowledge you gain unwittingly on Facebook can become an unwelcome burden.
• If in doubt… While some parents automatically accept friend requests for fear of hurting teens’ feelings, first consider the implications. If in doubt, discuss your dilemma with your teens. They may have wise advice. You can turn down friend requests from your teens’ peers politely simply by saying you have a policy against it, but look forward to talking to them whenever they visit your home.
As you’re weighing the pros and cons of Facebook friending your teen, there are several other important considerations. You may jeopardize your relationship—and for good reason. For teens Facebook feels private because they can choose whom they friend and don’t friend as well as whose access to their posts and photos they limit. This gives them a much desired sense of control. Parents becoming Facebook friends with them is an intrusion into their social world. Think about how you behave while chauffeuring a carload of teens. As you drive, you probably remain quiet because you respect their right to have a conversation amongst themselves. Plus, you know that butting in would put a screeching halt to your chance of learning anything.
The same courtesy and common sense could well be applied to Facebook. Asking to see your son’s profile or inviting your daughter to show you wherever she’s tagged in her friends’ photos are much like politely knocking on their bedroom doors before entering—whether or not their friends are over. (Note: An exception might be requiring teen to show you their allegedly inappropriate photos on Facebook that another parent alerted you to…)
In addition, because the parental generation is usually less savvy than our teens about social media, we should proceed cautiously to avoid making grave mistakes. Facebook makes it all too easy for us to embarrass ourselves; constantly changing rules and privacy settings are notoriously difficult to keep up with, even for the most avid users. Unless you’re a Facebook expert, you may not realize you’re making decisions that place you at risk for potentially awkward—and often irreparable—errors. Since one of the main roles of parenting is teaching kids to use technology responsibly, you’ll definitely want to avoid this unfortunate possibility.
So recognize what you do and don’t know about Facebook. Your teens are probably more knowledgeable about some things, such as knowing how to create separate classes of friends with different privacy settings, how to untag photos, and how to turn on the setting that allows photos to be tagged only after they are reviewed and approved. You might ask them to teach you these valuable skills. But you know things, too, which enable you to be helpful to your teens. For example, you know it’s important for kids to think carefully about whom they friend—and, just as important, whose friend requests they shouldn’t accept. You know to question whether, if they do accept certain people’s friend requests, they should adjust their settings to limit access to their pages (e.g., “Your teachers? Tutors? Future employers? Grandma?”). You know how to help kids evaluate which posts or pictures could be misconstrued or damaging. In the end, partnering with your teens to use Facebook sensibly may be wiser than being Facebook friends with them.