Facebook

January 1, 2011 | 7 Comments

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Facebook: The Project — A Parent’s Friend or Foe      My teenagers would desperately like a Facebook page.  They have wanted one for a very long time.  And why wouldn’t they?—It is, after all, the social network used by the majority of their peers and friends; and what teenager isn’t social by nature?  At least that’s what our kids tell us when the discussion of starting a Facebook page comes up.  They provide convincing support for the pros of participating in Facebook:  (1) their friends are using Facebook; (2) they would like some privacy with their thoughts and the “conversations” that they exchange with their friends; and (3) their friends all keep a “G” –or how it’s occasionally described to us: “Well, maybe sometimes a PG Facebook page; but we guarantee it’s a nothing for a parent to worry about type of page” rating. This doesn’t sound like too much to ask, I imagine; and yet, I remain on the fence with a decision.  Add to the fact that I am rather hypocritical about Facebook, as I have started my own personal Facebook page and love it, and I think you can understand the dilemma that I am in.  Let’s face it: Being social isn’t something that you grow out of, but rather cling to as you get older and come to terms with the fact that your time on this Earth is limited.

   

My kids live differently than a lot of other kids do.  To start with, they are homeschooled.  I dare say that they are limited with their friendship base, because that would be a rather inaccurate and incomplete explanation.  They have had the luxury, however, to essentially pick and choose their interest in friends by the various activities that they participate in.  They are not forced to make friends from a limited exposure that one may experience by being in the same classroom, the same school, and the same environment day after day and year after year–and essentially the same group of kids to choose from to friend.   My kids are certainly not “unsocialized” as homeschoolers; they are involved in several clubs and organizations which encourages the growth of their friendship circle.

Even though my kids have been predominately homeschooled throughout their lives, now that they are in high school their world has opened even bigger.   I don’t want to give the impression that their life is filled with only many tiny groups of kids, as they have moments when they are mingled in with a large quantity of kids at one time—such as when they take a class at the local public high school or participate in an organized sport program.   Each area they encounter provides an opportunity for their friendship base to grow.

While my kids may participate in an activity or organization for a long a period of time, several of their friends have not been so fortunate.  The current economy has caused some families to be transients, thus resulting in my kids losing contact with some of their friends that no longer have the same cell/home numbers.  Or if their friend has not moved, s/he may have lost their (home) internet or cell phone service as a cost reduction or punishment method by their parents, which is another way that contact between the kids are lost.  But kids can be very resilient, and if there’s a way to connect with others, they can find it.  There are now free email providers in which these same kids can set up an email address, regardless of having internet at home, and keep that email address for years.  This allows for such services as Facebook and MySpace to be accessed when ever, where ever and how ever kids can find an internet connection—such at the library or even through their iPods and iPhones.

As their friendship list gets larger on all accounts, naturally, they want to keep in touch with the kids that they have meet; hence their wanting a Facebook page.

One of the things that my kids explained to me was “none of our friends would let in anyone that they didn’t know.”  Phew.  That’s a big relief.  This would be internet safety at its best; and with whom better at the helm than teenagers?  I wouldn’t have to worry about pedophiles or unwanted lurkers in their pages, right? I doubt it.  I know teenagers; they can be impulsive, disorganized, thrill seekers and rule breakers.  I’m not saying that this makes them bad kids (I, too, was a teenager!—albeit a long time ago); I’m just saying that this has the potential to make them vulnerable to people (or things) that they had not planned on because of some of the comments or photos that can be shared openly (even unintentionally or accidentally by a “friend”) in a medium like Facebook.

A little over a year ago, an acquaintance of mine introduced me to Facebook.  It was quite by accident.  I received an invitation to join what I had perceived to be a group similar to a Yahoo! group.  Since I enjoyed Yahoo! groups as a means to connect with other homeschooling families, I thought that I would try it out.  To be honest, at that time I found Facebook to be overwhelming to me, so I abandoned the account and forgot about it—more importantly, I forgot the password.  Then my kids started to ask for a Facebook page of their own and I remembered that I had my own Facebook page.  But since I had not used the account for a long time, and I had forgotten my password and security information, I could not access my Facebook page.  And thus, the beginning of our own Facebook project was born.

I decided that we would try out Facebook as a project together.  It would be an experiment of sorts, if you will, with many variables that we would encounter, modify, and discuss…after all, as a homeschooling family we’re all about the learning, right?  I explained to the kids that I would start another Facebook page—one that would be specifically for our project.  This second Facebook page that was started included very little information available to others.  It basically shared only the name that was used for the account—and not one that would be recognizable to any of us.  (And even if our Facebook page was “friended”, the only other information shared was the name of the local high school as attending and an anticipating graduation date.) The purpose: to check if my kids’ friends were really as cautious with their online friends as my kids believed them to be.  Our project would include a couple of things: (1) we would “friend” some of their friends; (2) we would “friend” some of their friends’ friends—people that my kids had never met; (3) we would accept “friend” requests;  and (4) we would take approximately 9 months to monitor this Facebook page to see what their friends did post.   To help with the accuracy of our project, my kids have not told anyone about this Facebook page as they didn’t want the results of it to be skewed in any way.

Friend after friend was located and asked to “friend” our Facebook page.  Much to their surprise, the majority of their friends “accepted” the friend request of this unknown student.   Not only that, it wasn’t long before our Facebook page was receiving friend requests to join other Facebookers.  Our Facebook page consisting of 20 or 30 friends has since turned into well over 200 “friends”—and apparently, counting.

It seems, as in real life friends (RLF) and cliques, that when you are able to “friend” one of the perceived cool kids, one of the athletes, or one of the outcasts, you are now real by association and “okay” to join several other Facebook pages in which these kids reside on the web.   The association of “accepted” by one kid almost always guarantees the acceptance of numerous others within that status group—even if it’s obvious that they have never met you, or even heard of you.  It has been a rare occasion that a friend request has been denied—even when a message sent to our Facebook page of “do I know you?” is not replied to at all or with only a brief response of “Facebook friend suggestion.” The friend requests are, for the majority of the time, accepted.  This was surprising to my kids.

After “friending” kids (under our FB project page) that my kids knew in real life, the next part of our experiment was to friend some of the people on their friend list.  This, too, was shocking, because many of those friend requests were also accepted.  Once again it was obvious that there had not been any personal, real life contact made in the past, but that didn’t stop these kids from opening up their world—and in some cases, baring their soul—to perfect strangers.  Being on a friend list meant acceptance into another’s friend list—a completely trusting measure, which was, of course, eye-opening to my kids.  A lesson learned: not everyone is your friend’s friend list may be someone that your friend really knows.  You are sharing your information not only with your (real life) friend, but those that your friend has let in to the inner circle.

Our Facebook page wall has remained blank.  We have not commented on it, nor do we comment on the Facebook pages of others.   The items that fill our Facebook wall are the responses of our “friends” to questions (games) that are playing on Facebook.     It is rather humorous for our “friends” to answer questions about us in these games as if they know us and what we would think or do in different situations.

So I guess that this is where things get a bit blurry for me.  Here we have a project going on that none of us certainly thought would get this big (referring to the number of friends that have been acquired), with thoughts and actions being written by these kids—some that are known personally by my kids, but many that are not—and the concern of what to do about this knowledge.  Nor did we plan on being privy to some of the some of the personal messages that kids have a tendency to post about: teenager pregnancies and teenage parenting come immediately to mind.  But I really think that we didn’t plan on the depths of  love, heartbreak, and unresolvable issues that would read about.  (This is also probably a good time to note that I was finally able to access my own personal Facebook page; thus allowing me to friend some of the kids that I also know.)   Do you tell anyone what you’ve read in Facebook? And if you do, who do you tell?  Do you tell their parents?  Do you break the project rules and contact these kids with suggestions to get help?

This is the part of our Facebook project that we did not plan to encounter; and it has been the part that has been the hardest to decide what to do.  To this point, our Facebook project has remained uncompromised and no personal contact has been made.

However, in the Facebook pages of which I am friends with some of these kids on my own personal Facebook page, I have contacted them with things that I have been concerned about reading (or seeing) in their Facebook pages.  And, thankfully, the majority of these issues have been rather small in nature.  Why not contact their parents I imagine you might be thinking?  Well, I have not contacted their parents for various reasons.  In most situations, I have just felt that it was probably better for all involved to just contact the person directly (although privately through a message seen by only the recipient)  in their Facebook page and note what I was concerned about—which largely is the use of profanity or inappropriate pictures.  (And so far, only person has been removed from my own personal Facebook page because of content on their wall.  And I imagine that should my concerns be corrected, I will re-friend the person again.)  But even these concerns are subject to interpretation and priority, are they not?  And while I, as a parent, would not like for my kids to use profanity while writing in their Facebook page (and would be shocked for such a thing to occur), it does not mean that another parent may find this as disturbing as I do or even want to get involved with curtailing it on their own kid’s Facebook page.  In the big picture of things, is profanity so bad when it could be drugs, alcohol, or sex that they are writing about?  Shouldn’t they be able to blow off some steam?  Shouldn’t they be able to just be kids and write like their peers—or to think like their peers?  And while I may answer that for me, and in my household, it still would not be an acceptable, nor justifiable, behavior, we go back to the fact that this may not be a concern within another household.   So contacting a parent would, I imagine in most cases, just open Pandora’s Box starting with, “Why are you minding my kid’s business anyway?”  Gone are the days, I believe anyway, that families are thankful when the village is trying to help raise their kids.   And is there a purpose in contacting a parent when a parent is already on the “friend” list of their kid’s Facebook page?  Wouldn’t it be just as futile to pop a note over to a parent that has access to this information already?

But if you are on Facebook, and also a member of some teenage Facebook pages, you already know that profanity isn’t the biggest issue that goes on.  Some of these kids express great sadness, loneliness, and anger.  Being social in a social networking site isn’t just sharing all happy moments, but some rather frustrating ones also—directed quite a bit of the time towards (or about) their parents.  And while this same type of frustration—that a parent just doesn’t understand anything—has probably gone on for years (remember Romeo and Juliette?), it doesn’t stop the me from feeling sympathy for these kids that are sharing about themselves in such desperate ways.

But the benefit of this project, at this point, certainly outweighs the negatives.  It has been a wonderful teaching tool.  We have had several conversations within our household as to the importance of using caution when posting information on the web and things that are posted (even if you think that it’s just to your friends) go way beyond that; essentially, how much information is too much information to be out floating on the internet—forever.    We have discussed that photos, although meant for one thing, can certainly be construed quite easily for another.  And more importantly, we’ve discussed reputations and perceptions.  In one post—in one sentence—both of these things can be tarnished.   Carelessness, in such a medium as this, could have devastating consequences for future employment.

And so, at this point, I remain unclear whether our kids will be allowed a Facebook page.   Even though my kids still would like to have their own Facebook page, I don’t have to make that decision today; there is still more time left on our Facebook project.

–Rebecca Miller

The Sandwiched Homeschooler

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