I don’t have children yet, so I don’t know about parenting, or what it means to be “Friends” with my children on Facebook. However, I have parents on Facebook and I know enough people on Facebook who are a child, or parent, or both. I also conducted interviews earlier this year with adult Facebook users with colleagues Ellison and Vitak, and although parenting was not a main subject that was discussed, I was able to learn about some interesting cases about what it is to be a parent or child.
For the most part, I think there are two types of activity going on between parents and their children on Facebook- communicating and moderating. For some people Facebook is a way for parents to connect with their children (surprise!) or vice versa. Facebook is especially good when children are not living in the same location; sharing photos, status updates, etc. can be a good way to keep in touch on an everyday basis without having to make phone calls when you don’t have something specific to talk about.
On the other hand, Facebook is also useful when you’re trying to keep an eye on what your children are doing. The nice word for this is “moderating” although it seems like the norm for moderating someone’s cyber activities has certainly loosened; when does modering cross the line and become stalking? Although children could have different privacy settings for friends vs Facebook Friends vs parents vs employers, etc. the truth of the matter is, if you are an active user of social media, any type of Internet-based activity is eventually going to make it out there. For instance, I could post a photo of me at a party and only leave it visible to those who attended the party. However, I can’t stop others from posting things on my wall regarding the party, posting their photos, tagging me in those photos, and making the photos available to friends of friends. Although I could ask the poster to remove the photo, there will always be a time lapse, and what with the content that is shared in social media, it becomes extremely difficult to be private, even if I decide to erase my online activity entirely.
This makes it super easy to stalk, uh, moderate your children. Take my parents for example. They used to call every few days to know what I’m doing, even then, if I were busy, I wouldn’t be able to tell them the details of every aspect of my life. However, now my parents check my updates on Facebook and look at the pictures I have on Flickr, thus being able to deduce what I am doing without having to ask. My mother keeps an eye on my blog (continuously reminding me not to post anything personal) and my father follows me on Four Square. I admit it was kind of creepy at first, because my mother would bring up subjects that I know I never told her. To some extent it was difficult for me to reposition myself in social media because I had been an active blogger even before Facebook: when I was blogging ten years ago, I was blogging for a very wide, ambiguous audience under a screen name. Of course, some people knew it was me, but it was “understood” that I wanted to keep my online identity separate from my offline one. Now, there really is no distinction.
That said, as advice to parents, if you want to know what your children are up to, a combination of social media (Twitter, Facebook, Four Square, etc.) is extremely useful. Just be careful about talking about the “information” you learn because even if your children know that everyone could potentially see the content, they’re not directing those messages to you, so it could seem very intrusive if you confront them with information that you’ve received second hand. And if you want them to be more comfortable with your presence in their Friend list, I would suggest that you don’t try to over-communicate. At first, don’t “like” every single status update they post, or comment on every single photo. Be moderate in your moderation.