Friday, May 13, 2011

Facebook: Friend or Frenemy?

I'm the first to admit it. These are tough times to be raising a tween. But, I'm always surprised when my fellow moms behave like ostriches.

Let me give you an example ...

We are very lucky that my daughter's middle school sponsors an informative "Family Center" series with invited speakers on such topics as "Balancing Homework and Sports," "Raising a Resilient Child," or the always popular "Don't Panic, It's Just Puberty."

Recently, we had guest speakers from the county district attorney's office and a university research center for teen aggression. They came to talk to us about "Online Safety." Clearly, the topic was timely; the room was fairly packed with worried and white-knuckled parents. I don't mean to sound flippant. The issues are real, of course. There are criminals, pedophiles and sex offenders who prey on young people online. Far more common are instances of cyber bullying by peers, and we've all seen the headlines about some truly tragic consequences. A lot of these incidents begin on popular social networking sites, like Facebook.

None of this surprised me. What did surprise me was how many parents thought they could keep their kids safe by ignoring the whole thing.

"My daughter's not on Facebook!" one mother announced.

"Facebook is the devil," asserted another.

"We. Simply. Don't. Allow. It."

The guest speaker asked, "How many of your children have Facebook pages." Just about a quarter of the attendees raised their hands, a bit sheepishly I might add. The speaker shook his head. "I can pretty much guarantee that the real number is at least double that, probably triple." It turns out that millions, literally millions, of tweens post pages on Facebook without their parents' permission or knowledge. Virtually all middle school kids have played around on Facebook at a friend's house if it's not allowed in their own. Needless to say, my fellow parental units were none too happy to hear this.

As my daughter might say ... "Clue phone, it's for you!" Really, were these other parents living under a rock? Do they honestly think they can police their child's every move? Even if you have the strictest rules, state-of-the-art PC parental controls, or don't even own a computer ... chances are, your little darling has been exposed to the wonderful world of Facebook at someone else's house, at the library or even on a phone. Because, let's not kid ourselves. Those smart phones aren't just for calling and texting; they're fully-functioning palm-sized computers with access to the Internet and parents' enemy number one: Facebook.

But, I'd rather not look at Facebook as the big bad. In today's world, it's simply out there. Like traffic or unwashed fruit. As modern parents, I think we can teach our kids how to negotiate it safely. In fact, I'd rather be involved in giving my tween daughter some Internet savvy than pretend she doesn't need it. And, Facebook is a fairly easy place to start.

Despite much lobbying on her part, I waited to let my daughter join Facebook until she turned thirteen. This, by the way, is the minimum age allowed by the site itself. But, we all know how easy it is to fudge your age. After all ... "On the Internet, no one knows you're a tween." I waited, not because I was terribly worried about what would happen to her on the dreaded social network, but because I think that as a parent I should instill a respect for rules. I also believe that it doesn't serve anyone for me to just give in every time she discovers a new toy, new technology or new media channel. I'd like to think I'm teaching my daughter patience. I know I'm pacing things for my own sanity.

So she enthusiastically joined Facebook on her thirteenth birthday. I offered to help her set it up. Who was I kidding? Within minutes, she was not only up and running, she had dozens of "friends." Clearly, she had been practicing elsewhere.

Of course, I set up some ground rules:

1. She had to "friend" me. Not just me, but my entire network of loving spies: my mother, my sister, my business partners, my roommate from college.

2. She had to provide me with her user name and password. She is fully aware that I may check up on her at any time. This was unequivocally the cost of entry.

3. She had to promise never to post anything off color about herself or cruel about anyone else. I reminded her then (and still do fairly frequently) that nothing you post is private. And, everything you post is permanent. Just ask one of those idiot adults who lost a job, political office or grad school scholarship because of something they posted one intoxicated evening.

4. And, finally, she had to use full sentences, proper spelling, grammar and punctuation.

All right, I confess that this last rule was fairly unrealistic — actually utterly hopeless — from the beginning. But a middle-aged English major can try, can't she? Oh well ...

Spelling (or lack thereof) aside, we have had very few issues, I am happy to report. There have been a handful of occasions when my daughter has "Liked" an inappropriate page. And, I have been soundly reprimanded for calling her "munch" (short for "munchkin," I'm embarrassed to tell you) in a post on her wall. Otherwise, Facebook has given us (and our extended family and friends) a chance to catalog vacations and horse shows, share photos and anecdotes, enjoy memories and birthday wishes. I feel I know my daughter's friends a bit better thanks to their posts.

And, I will happily embrace any medium that keeps me connected to what's going on in her life as it begins to separate itself from mine.

Facebook is no more inherently evil than a telephone or a note passed in class. It's how you and your tween use it that matters. For this particular mom, making "friends" with Facebook has made a lot of sense.


  1. We're dealing with the same issue with my 12-year-old and came to many of the same conclusions. We monitor usage, like we do when our daughter's surfing the internet. We also try to instruct her to the reality that she's "publishing" on Facebook and thus sending out to everyone not just friends. Also family has friended her excessively (yea). Thanks for putting a positive spin on this parenting issue!

  2. You're welcome, Cynthia. Thank you for reading and commenting! Good luck with your tween.