One of the biggest challenges facing contemporary families is the elephant in the computer room: how to go about connecting (or not) with your children via social media. My iPad-wielding parents have yet to make the plunge into Facebook, but I do know my dad checks Twitter on a semi-regular basis; I turned red with embarrassment on one occasion when he asked me whom I had been tweeting with about 3D ultrasounds earlier that day.
As a Millennial, mine is definitively the generation of social media. My immediate peer group was in high school when Facebook exploded — at a time when heavily personalized and HTML-heavy MySpace and LiveJournal pages were slowing down my internet. During this time, you needed to either be a college student with a “.edu” email address or be invited by a current Facebook user to make an account, keeping it a relatively exclusive and high-status site to join. (I’m still bizarrely proud to have been the first in my high school class to get a Facebook.) This exclusivity also largely closed off the network from parents and other adults in our lives.
The freedom that came with Facebook, as with any new social networking venture, often led to poor language, raunchy humor, inappropriate photos, and other content that most adults would think twice about posting. Habits that used to be people’s dirty little secrets were often voluntarily exposed and shared by the users themselves.
So later in life, when my peer group started to “get serious” and realize their online personae should be cleaned up, there was significant damage control that needed to be done; either by deleting bad photos, changing privacy settings, or even clean-sweeping by deleting their accounts altogether. Most friends in my age group (young twentysomethings) have conceded that they have posted something they shouldn’t have.
I can’t help but compare the experience of my age group with that of my godmother and her son. She’s had a Facebook for a few years now, and he, as a high schooler, has just recently joined the site. As Friends, she is able to make sure he makes good choices online in terms of what he shares and posts online. Sure, some may find that type of “surveillance” stifling or invasive – but it also keeps kids out of the position where they later regret what they’ve posted online.
Your kids may grumble now if you try to Friend them on Facebook or Follow them on Twitter, but they’ll thank you for it later. You’re saving them the trouble of having to revamp their online personae to represent their adult, professional selves when they do shift to that mindset.
A good rule of thumb regarding self-awareness on the internet is best summed up by a line in the 2010 film The Social Network: “The internet’s not written in pencil … it’s written in ink.” The things your kids post could be screen-shotted instantly and follow them forever. Your online presence is a good reminder for them to think twice about what they post, knowing you can see it as their Friend or follower but always as their parent.