Commentary

Friend Me Or Else: A Parent's View Of Teens And Facebook

Some weeks, Facebook is more interesting than others. And when I say that, I’m not talking about this week’s settlement concerning privacy with the FTC. For me, the most interesting thing on Facebook this week was when I posted the following status update on Monday night:

"Hi fellow parents of teenagers. I don't know everything there is to know about Facebook. Honest. So, here's my question: what guardrails do you put up when your teenager goes on Facebook? My first two are: making it mandatory that your child friend you and that you have access to their password. Please add comments below.”

Thirty-one comments (and counting) later, it’s been an illuminating look at not only the concern so many of us share about teenagers and Facebook, but also about how hard it is to keep pace -- from a parental control standpoint -- of a platform, and a medium, that is constantly changing. This applies even, as my status update noted, to someone immersed in social media.

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Upgrades to the service -- like improved Friend Lists, which introduce Google+-like ease to sharing with a small group of friends -- may be great for adults, but bring new concerns for parents. It becomes more likely that you won’t be privy to all of what your teenager is doing on Facebook. And while some might recoil -- as I did this week -- at the thought of a parent trying to retain that much control over their kid’s Facebook life, reality often dictates otherwise. While bad behavior among teenagers has always been commonplace, such behavior never had the the capacity before to go viral, unless you think the tableau depicted in “The Telephone Hour” in “Bye Bye Birdie” actually counts.

So how did my Facebook friends answer my question? With a raft of tactical advice. It included:

1.  Make it mandatory that your child friends you.

2.  Know your child’s password. This proved somewhat controversial. One mother noted it’s a good idea “ … in case you see something nasty on the wall and need to take some kind of immediate action and the teenager is not there to be able to take it.” I pointed out that it’s the best way to know everything your kid is posting. (In addition, though Facebook recommends reviewing settings “regularly” with your teen, it’s probably good to check them privately to see if they are adhering to what you both decided.)

3.  Have the email associated with the account be a parent’s address so that notifications come to the parent, not the kid. That’s a great suggestion, but it also shows the limitations of trying to erect guardrails around a constantly changing platform. While massive notifications used to be the default, they aren’t anymore. An unknowing parent who sees notifications slow down to a trickle may not realize it’s because of this change to Facebook’s settings, not because her teen wasn’t using it as much.

4.  Have your kids have avatars as profile pictures -- and don’t let them publish any specifics about themselves in their profile (birthday, hometown, etc.).

5.  Check the cache periodically to see if your kid is setting up other accounts so she can circumvent all of the above.

These suggestions are far more granular than anything Facebook suggests in its Safety Center. On the subject of parents and their teens being friends on Facebook, it suggests parents ask: “I want to be your friend on Facebook. Would that be OK with you? What would make it OK?” Something tells me that all of the parents of teens who commented would be exponentially more forceful.

In fact, I’m sure many would land on Facebook for addressing the friending issue, and online conduct in general, in such a milquetoast way, but that’s not really Facebook’s role. While Facebook can, for teens (and the occasional wayward adult), be an enabler of bad behavior, ultimately how parents and their kids choose to handle Facebook is between them.

For the record, Facebook’s settings for teens don’t make anything they publish public -- fact that most everyone who commented (and yours truly) seemed unaware of. But getting back to that contract between kids and parents, the safety those settings provide assume that your teen:

a)  Didn’t tell Facebook that her age is 18 or above.

b) Is not part of a hilarious group photo posted, just among friends, by some other kid who did lie about her age -- and then makes the photo public.

Maybe the best way to look at parents, teens and Facebook is like a game of Whac-a-mole, only this time it’s the Facebook monster (kidding!) you’re trying to whack instead of a little furry creature. Just when you think you’ve squashed it for good, a new portal to danger opens, and it’s time to take the parental mallet out again.

If you’ve managed to read this far -- and kudos to you if you have -- you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the business of social. To that I’d say “nothing, and everything.” This isn’t about “Liking” brands, but it is a more real-world look at Facebook, seen through the eyes of people who may well love Facebook, but who love their kids a whole lot more.

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