I’ve noticed an interesting trend on Facebook lately. It seems as though suddenly everyone I ever went to school with - from middle school to college - has found Facebook. And me.
For a while, it was just me and my work buddies (journalists love social networking) and a load of teenagers.
Little by little, the grown ups have infiltrated. And I’ll admit I’m partly to blame. I’ve been encouraging parents to get a Facebook for years - it’s a great way to connect with friends, colleagues and understand social networking before your kids make the leap from online puppy dogs and penguins, to the “real” net scene of teen angst, YouTube posts and requests for good kharma and secret crushes.
Still, what I’ve noticed is that it’s more than just a little lurking and healthy supervising by grown ups. It’s joining in. Participating. Chatting. Hanging out in kids’ circles. And it’s not a good idea.
It’s as if teens had been hanging at the roller rink for a few years and suddenly, parents show up, strap on the rollerblades, buckle the helmet strap under their chin and start chilling with their teen’s pals at the rink.
Parents don’t belong in a roller rink. They belong at the grocery store. Or at home. Or in the parking lot, reading a book in the mini-van. Close enough to check in occasionally or be available by phone, but far away enough that kids can be themselves.
If you’re on Facebook, have friended your teen and are inviting her friends to join your network, you just might need to head back to the parking lot. Sure, we all want that privileged glance into our teen’s lives, and Facebook can be just that. But consideration, respect and a little space is the only way to get it.
So I’ve come up with a few basic rules for parents of teens on Facebook. These are a general suggestions, certainly not rules to follow to the letter. And these tips are not applicable if your teen has a history of risky behavior or emotional health issues - you know your child better than anyone. But, in general terms, trying these tips can help your communication with your teen online - and offline, too.
Let teens come to you. If you established yourself as your child’s friend, there’s a good chance you’ve discovered that you know 50 of her friends. In fact, you changed some of their diapers, made Halloween costumes for a few and even camped out during scouts with a handful. This is exactly why they won’t want to be your friend online. You already know too much.
What ever you do, don’t send your child’s friends a friend request on Facebook. If they want to invite you to be a friend, great. If not, let it go. It’s not your party. Find someone your own age to play Scramble with.
Post comments prudently. Imagine your child sitting around the lunch table telling friends she made the honor roll for the first time. Suddenly, out of no where, you show up and say, “Way to go, honey, I knew you could do it!”
I smell a nerdy Mom moment in the making.
When it comes to posting comments on your child’s public Facebook wall, tread lightly. It might be fine to post a funny video link. Or, send her a piece of flair if she’s trying to fill her virtual cork board. And of course, a wall-to-wall post is no problem. But, in terms of generalized teen anthropology, the less obvious the parent, the better. Keep your eyes on the road, and don’t comment on the conversation in the back of the minivan lest they walk next time.
Don’t make comments about everything you see. And believe me, you’ll see a lot. Bad language. Suggestive photo poses. Links to crude humor. It can be hard to keep your mouth shut. But try.
Remember, that kids are also talking this way on the bus, acting this way in school hallways, too, like kids have done for centuries as they explore adolescence.
If the bad language and links are coming from your child, by all means call them out on it. But do it face to face and in private, never post a reprimand on their Facebook. Remind them that what they post can bite them in hinder if they aren’t careful. Maybe years from now. Maybe next Tuesday.
But be cautious about commenting on the rude, yet benign transgressions of of your child’s friends. Your teen knows what you approve of and what you don’t and many will be fiercely defensive of their friends. Unless you really feel someone is in danger, bullying others or crossing a moral or legal line, there is no need continually to point out her friend’s bad language choices. She already knows.
Watch what you post on your page, too. “Mom just changed her profile picture.” “Mom is tucking her cute kids into bed.” “Mom is wondering why teenagers are so difficult.” “Mom is getting ready for a romantic night with Dad.” “Mom just joined ‘Friends of Barry Manilow’ ”.
That’s exactly what your teen will think of your status, which will appear with your profile picture on her news feed every time you change it.
Consider the consequences of your own Facebook posts as it relates to your teen’s page and the mutual friends you share. Avoid embarrassing stories or pictures about your child on your Facebook page. And remember - your teen can read your page, too. So when you reconnect with college buddies who want to rehash the “good-ole-days”, your teen can read the details.
Let them go if they boot you off. At some point, your child may want to “un-friend” you. Don’t take it personally. You’ve seen the conversation, the comments and her general behavior online. If she’s acted responsibly and you’re comfortable with her behavior, respect her request.
Kicking you out of her social circle is akin to asking you to drop her off at the corner so she can walk into the mall by herself. Unless she has been doing questionable things online, posting inappropriate comments or has a history of risky behavior, let her go hang with her friends. And you go hang with yours.
New territory can be nerve wracking, especially when teens are involved, and when it comes to social networking it seems as if the rules and dynamics change weekly. But applying basic parental intuition from the brick and mortar world to online hangouts is important. You wouldn’t invite your child to your college reunion. And you don’t want to hang at the bowling alley with her and her teen friends. Keeping your social circles separate online makes sense.
As more and more adults permeate what used to be a teen hive, the bees are going to buzz out of town. Understand what kids are doing online, get a glimpse at their pages and most importantly, have an continuing conversation about safety, good choices, responsibility and consequences.
Just give them a little space, before you chase them away.