Keeping up with the changing face of Facebook
By S.C. Torrington
I still remember the mortification I felt when my mother volunteered as a cafeteria lady at my elementary school. She’d greet my friends by name while doling out their over-steamed vegetables, and I’d ignore her.
So, I can appreciate the frustration many of today’s teens feel as parents and other adult family members invade their virtual territory on Facebook, the social networking website now serving more than 300 million people worldwide.
For those still living with me in the 20th century, a social networking website allows its members to create a public, or semi-public, personal profile, then compile and communicate with a list of other users or “friends.”
When Harvard University computer science student Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004, its membership was limited to his fellow students. It quickly expanded to include any college student. In 2005, it opened up to high schoolers, and now it is available to anyone age 13 and older. That includes parents.
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on current trends, during the final quarter of 2008, one of Facebook’s fastest growing demographics was females ages 55 and older. Pew’s research showed that social networking use among adults had quadrupled in the previous three years, and that roughly 35 percent of adults had profiles on social networking sites.
Recently, a Towson teenager and her mother discussed how social networking can help a family stay connected—but can also cramp a kid’s style.
“Facebook is easy communication,” says Allison Sheldon, a high school senior. “I use it because practically everybody uses it. On Facebook, it’s easy to make plans to go out and to get homework. But, as far as adults go, I know a lot of kids whose parents use it to stalk their children.”
Allison’s mom, Dianne Sheldon, finds her daughter’s use of the word “stalk” rather harsh, yet says she has no desire to meet up with Allison on Facebook.
“My son is in his 20s, and my daughter is almost 18,” says Sheldon. “I feel they both know how to conduct themselves in public, which is how I see Facebook. My husband and I have spent a lot of time talking to them about behaving responsibly on the Internet, and I trust that they were listening at least a little bit. Besides, both being on Facebook, they check what each other are doing all the time. If there were anything either of them were posting that I needed to be concerned about, it would get back to me.”
Sheldon also admits that she sees situations where Facebook works well.
“Just because I don’t use Facebook doesn’t mean I think that nobody else my age should use it,” she says. “In fact, I can think of situations where it works very well. For instance, my niece is currently living in South Korea, and she gets to stay in touch with her family very easily on Facebook. My brother loves that his daughter can post photos of where she’s going and what she’s doing.”
Allison’s just glad her parents aren’t on Facebook.
“If they were on Facebook and wanted to friend me, I’d want to say no,” she says. “Really, it’s not as though I’m doing anything horrible. It’s just that having your parents on Facebook is like going somewhere with your friends and having your parents tag along. It’s not right!”
Sure, Allison may sound tough—until the 17-year-old recounts another relative’s recent over-zealousness on Facebook.
“When my Aunt Karen asked to be my friend, how could I say no?” Allison laughs.
“At first when I friended Aunt Karen, she was sending me all these application invites [for playing games online]. I was bombarded. I finally had to ask my dad to ask her to stop sending me so much stuff. She still sends things, but a lot less.”
Yet, the teen really enjoys meeting up with relatives via Facebook.
“I do like keeping in touch with my brother and my cousins because I don’t get to see them much in person,” she says. “My brother’s away at college and my cousins live in other states. I also get to see what my brother’s working on because he puts his art on Facebook.”
On a more serious note, another Baltimore family has felt the reach of Facebook at home, at school, and in the workplace.
“I do not use Facebook, MySpace, or any other social networking site,” Fran Bennett states flatly. “I’m a counselor who works with people who suffer with both addictions and mental health diagnoses. People dealing with these issues often struggle with understanding personal boundaries and the inability to accurately assess what information should be private or public.”
“Facebook and other social networking sites have been known to confuse people’s judgment regarding personal boundaries,” she continues. “These sites often make it difficult for clinicians to stress the importance of being able to identify public versus private information—and the essential need to develop this skill.”
Until recently, Bennett’s children also did not have, nor did they want, a social networking website.
“My middle-schooler doesn’t use Facebook and still has no interest in starting to use it,” says Bennett. “According to him, a majority of the kids in his school who use Facebook are only using it to be rude to other people and to brag about things that aren’t true.”
Bennett’s high school-aged daughter, however, recently was required to begin a Facebook account for one of her classes. The teacher explained to Bennett that it was necessary in order for her daughter to communicate with her work group.
“I was really put off by my daughter being made to have a Facebook account,” laments Bennett.
“Yet, I’m realistic,” she adds. “I understand that, if used for its original intended purpose—for students to communicate and work with one another despite difficult schedules—this could be a great tool.” BC
FB 411 for Parents
For parents who want to better understand this 21st-century communication phenomenon without embarrassing their children (or themselves), Stanford University’s website, Facebook for Parents, www.facebookforparents.org, offers some basic FB 411, including an e-newsletter.
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. November 2009