To Facebook or not to Facebook

Someone recently forwarded my husband a link to an episode of “South Park” where the primary topic is Facebook. Now, I’m sure there are many who take offense at “South Park” humor, but I admit, I’m a fan. (For those not in the know, I’m talking about an animated TV show on Comedy Central, whose main characters are adolescent boys living in the fictional town of South Park, Colorado. The show is known for its, shall we say, satire and vulgarity. I’ll leave it at that.)

I don’t watch “South Park” anymore, but I did in my post-college/pre-kid days. So of course, I had to turn around and look at my husband’s laptop the second I started hearing it play the familiar voices of Cartman, Stan, and Kyle. And then I couldn’t stop watching. It was typical South Park humor, and fairly hilarious—but it was the subject matter that got me thinking.

Here’s a recap from the popular social media guide Mashable:

The episode, titled “You Have 0 Friends,” captured perfectly how obsessive Facebook can be. Stan, the lone child not yet on FB, is forced to join at the behest of his friends, which leads his girlfriend to jealously pour over his profile (we’ve all been there) and his father to insist that he add every one of his relatives — and to “poke” his grandma.

When he deletes his profile out of frustration… well… let’s just say he probably should have opened an Entrustet account. Meanwhile, Kyle friends a FB loser, which leads to a steady stream of unfriending and a breakdown of sorts.

Now if that doesn’t get your interest as an avid Facebooker and mom, I don’t know what will. I started wondering how I would act if my children wanted—or, later on, didn’t want—to join Facebook. Would I monitor every second and action? Would I let them friend people I didn’t know personally? Better yet, would I let them see my page—my sacred outlet and connection to the world? Would I make them friend my friends, or would my friends friend them without telling me, and then they’d become confidantes without my knowledge? Ah, what a mess.

And how would my kids act? Would they judge themselves or others by their number of friends? Would I judge them?

Honestly, I have no idea. I personally (and thankfully) feel all three of my children are way too young right now at 2, 6, and 8. But it seems that, when it comes to kids and technology, our standards of acceptance fluctuate a great deal as social norms change. So I put on my reporter hat and posted a note on my wall, trying to round up insight from my mom friends who already had kids on Facebook.

I asked them how old was old enough for Facebook, and how young is too young? I asked about parental supervision, and about how much they share their own details with their children. Finally, I wanted to know if moms thought their kids shared the same notion of the meaning of “friends” on Facebook.

I have to say, I got some really thought-provoking and wise responses.

Regarding age and Facebook, most of my friends found it appropriate and somewhat unavoidable for a child to have his own profile somewhere between the 9 and 11 year old range. As one mom cautioned, though, “It depends on each child and their maturity level.” She monitors each of her children differently, according to their personality. Sage advice.

Most of the moms also agreed that regular and complete monitoring of a child’s FB page is necessary. And it’s not just a matter of safety—it’s about reputation. “Anything that I should not be seeing,” reminds one mother, “college recruiters or future employers should not be seeing as well.” How far should you go in administering the security of your child’s page? Pretty far—and fortunately, Facebook makes it easy to control privacy settings down to a very specific level. One friend of mine offered this description of her involvement in monitoring her children’s pages: “I am the one that set up their accounts and set their passwords (which they do not know). They are logged in on their laptops but cannot log in anywhere else, including friend’s houses, etc. and cannot make any administrative changes. Only friends can see their pages (not friends of friends).” She takes it a step further by having her children understand that the use of Facebook is a privilege to be earned, stating that she “can temporarily deactivate their account for any reason, such as bad test scores, not doing chores, etc.” (Good thinking—that would certainly motivate me!)

My friends were a bit split on whether or not to let their kids see their own pages, however. One mom who is very active on Facebook and who, like me, uses it in a rather cathartic blogging kind of way, said no outright. She doesn’t want to edit herself, which I can understand. Another mom, though, wholeheartedly supported her children seeing everything on her page. “If it isn’t appropriate,” she wrote, “then I probably shouldn’t be writing/saying/posting it in the first place. If it is private, then I send a message.” I also agree. Still… I am possessive of my page. Already, I can see myself creating an alter ego with a separate profile….but I digress.

One of my biggest concerns personally with young kids on Facebook is that they don’t think of the idea of “friend” in the same way we parents do. This is readily obvious when you go to, for example, a parent’s page and find they have in the neighborhood of 100-300 friends, on average—and then you look at the pages of high school students, and they typically have upwards of 700. Could it be they have that many actual friends? Not likely. Most of us moms who discussed the topic agreed that kids on FB tend to accept any (and sometimes every) acquaintance in the world as a FB friend for the purpose of driving up the count, whereas parents tend to be more discerning. Says one mom, “I have ignored people who I didn’t really know that well.” Same goes for me—and I admit that I also tend not to seek out people I work with on a regular basis. The Facebook side of me is not, ahem, always that productive. (And that’s what LinkedIn is for!)

But what does it say that our kids are equating friends with acquaintances? Or that they, like the South Park kids, are judging each other based on their friend counts? I think these trends simply point to the evolution of semantics and normalcy that comes with changing social media technology. Facebook makes it so easy to speak in shorthand and to connect immediately that we can be tempted to over-connect if we’re not careful. Moms need to help their kids see that Facebook, like most social arenas in life, is a place to exercise moderation and good judgment. And moms also need to understand that the openness of the forum can present many new opportunities for disturbing behavior, including cyberbullying. It’s our job as parents to educate ourselves about the reality of the Facebook world.

All this said, most of my mom friends agreed that Facebook is still a wonderful invention that brings us closer to friends, family, and neighbors. I’ve used it many times to host impromptu gatherings, schedule random playdates, bump into friends when we realize we’re out and about in the same place at the same time. Lots of moms are using it to keep tabs on their kids, but also to play games with them and “meet” the people with whom their children spend time—which can sometimes be more informative online than in person (because online we can peek at their profiles!).

Is it an easy and well-defined road to walk? Probably not. And I have a few years before I’ll be on it. But I’m thankful, in the meantime, to have my Facebook mom connections to guide me. Who knows where I’d be without them! In fact, I better go post that in my status…

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