Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Facebook: So Many Friends, So Little Supervision

When I was growing up in New York City in the 70s, our family only had one TV. But, that was okay. 

You see, we watched shows together. (Imagine that.) These included classics like The Odd Couple (starring two of my actor father's friends, no less), Monty Python's Flying Circus, M*A*S*H, Upstairs, Downstairs, All in the Family and its spinoffs: Maude and The Jeffersons

I remember a haunting commercial from that period (well, not during the PBS shows, of course, but every evening after all the others). It was a public service announcement with an ominous voiceover:

"It's ten p.m. Do you know where your children are?"

Some of the best parenting books I've read urge moms and dads to make it a point to always know where their kids are and — even more importantly — who they are with. When our town's police chief came and spoke to the middle school PTA, he stressed just how critical this is. He explained that when a child is missing, the first thing he and his force ask is "Who are they with? Where were they last?" He said that at least half the time, the distressed parent calling can't answer those questions.

Knowing your daughter or son's friends is fairly easy when they're little. As they get older, it gets harder. Sometimes they want to protect their private life; sometimes they think you won't approve; sometimes (many times in my particular family) they're afraid that you'll E-M-B-A-R-R-A-S-S them.

And, it does get monotonous asking the same questions over and over "Who are you with? Where are you going? Will there be adults there?" And then, invariably, "Why are you rolling your eyes?"

Our generation of parents have it tougher than my parents' generation of parents did. You see, they only had to keep track of our real-life, flesh and blood, analog friends. It's a whole new ballgame now.

My teenage daughter has 779 Facebook friends! 779! And, I wouldn't even know how to find the numbers that correspond to her other social media channels. (I don't even think I can list all the sites anymore.)

Here's what a recent Pew Internet study on "Teens, Media and Privacy" reported about teens and Facebook friends:

98% of Facebook-using teens are friends with people they know from school.

Okay, that makes sense.

91% of teen Facebook users are friends with members of their extended family.

Also makes sense and evokes a nice traditional "Awww."

89% are connected to friends who do not attend the same school. 

What a lovely way to stay in touch.

76% are Facebook friends with brothers and sisters.

My teen is an only child, but I can see the benefit here. If one sibling is treading dangerous online waters, there's a built-in life saver (or tattle tale, if necessary).

33% are Facebook friends with other people they have not met in person.

Uh-oh. Here we have something a little more disconcerting. At first blush, 33% may not sound like a significant number. But, when you consider that there are about 22 million teens in the U.S., we're looking at a pretty major minority. One hopes that these are all friends of friends, that someone, somewhere, at some time, has met these people in person.

I myself (middle-aged and more careful online than a teenager, I should hope) accidentally accepted a stranger's friend request last week. The man had a Spanish last name and I assumed it was a relative of our recent exchange student. After I accepted, however, he sent a message about how much I look like a friend of his first wife and how he hoped we could get together soon.

Um ... Block, block, block! (If you don't know how to do that, ask your teenager.)

30% have teachers or coaches as friends in their network.

I immediately checked and my daughter has, indeed, Facebook friended all of her equestrian trainers. Good. More authority figures. More responsible eyes watching out for her.

30% have celebrities, musicians or athletes in their network.

Imagine Dragons, Walk the Moon, Atlas Genius. My daughter has Facebook friends from each of these bands (yes, dear reader, these are bands). It's hard to argue with this when I put myself in my daughter's Converse All Stars. What I wouldn't have given way back when to be any sort of friends with Elton John!

Our parents may have had less to worry about pre-Internet. But, they couldn't really (not really-really) keep track of us every minute of every day. (Go see the new version of Carrie if you think doing so would be a good idea.) Once we were old enough to borrow the car keys (or, in my case, hop on the subway), we were on our own.

All we can do is have faith that we've instilled the right values and that they will choose their friends — offline and on — accordingly.

And maybe they do. After all ...

70% of teen Facebook users are friends with their parents.

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