Why Can’t We All Just Be Friends (on Facebook)?

So today is Safer Internet Day. And no, that doesn’t mean you should pull out your ergonomic mouse pad and read eBay seller feedback before bidding. Safer Internet Day is all about educating kids and teenagers about social networking websites. The tag line of the campaign is ‘It’s more than a game, it’s your life’, which is a big improvement on last year’s ‘Think B4 U Post’. What is it about text message-language that just doesn’t work when government bodies adopt it?

You can check out all the educational goodness of the campaign here.

It’s one of the better promotions for online safety I’ve come across. So many of those Dos and Don’ts guides read like they were dictated by a strict school principal in the 50s, faxed through to the education department in the 80s and eventually transcribed in the 90s. But this campaign mostly avoids the condescension and yesteryear vibe. Best of all it encourages parents to join the same social networking sites as their children:

Set up your own account, ask to join your child’s ‘friends’ list and see for yourself what they’re doing. It can be a fun experience for you too!

OK so a bit of condescension at the end there, but I agree wholeheartedly with the message: kids and parents should be Facebook friends.

Australian YA author (and current 17-year-old) Steph Bowe recently blogged about why teenagers should be Facebook friends with their parents. Steph rebuts ‘advice’ columns in magazines that are trading on the perception that Facebook and other social networking sites are places where parents – if they must be on such sites at all – should not be mixing with their children.

Of course privacy encompasses someone’s right to not be online friends with their parents. It’s not really all that surprising that teenagers might think it weird or creepy to be Facebook friends with their parents. My 15-year-old self would have been appalled had my father also been chatting on MSN Instant Messenger back then. But I think that’s a culture thing. I was also appalled when I first heard of friends’ parents joining Facebook. Now I wish mine would, so they were in the loop a bit more. Even if you’re Facebook friends with your children and they unfriend you during their rebellious teenage years, at least you were and are part of the same system.

I’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of kids joining Facebook over the past couple of years. When I first started visiting primary schools to talk about my middle-grade novel The Greatest Blogger in the World, I would ask the kids if they, or maybe their parents or an older brother or sister, were into blogging or Facebook or MySpace. Usually only a couple of kids put their hands up. Blogs and social networking sites were only on the periphery of the web for them.

A year later, it was a different situation – every child I came across (for the most part, students in grades 4, 5 and 6) seemed to have a Facebook account. It didn’t seem to matter that most of them were under the age limit to join Facebook (which is thirteen and about as preventative as an Are You Over 18? Tick Yes Or No questionnaire on the entrance to an adult website). What’s more, they understood what Facebook was about and they were excited to be part of it.

The fact is there are no special age-based filters or classifications built into Facebook. No way of shielding kids from certain types of content or information. Installing Net Nanny isn’t going to solve this one.

I got a shock myself last year when a nine-year-old relative added me on Facebook. At first I ignored her friend request. After all, I wasn’t friends with any other kids on Facebook. And sometimes I posted things on my wall that were risqué. Like YouTube videos containing swearing or sexual references or Bon Jovi. Then I discovered that she’d sought me out online after reading my book, and I felt bad. After all, she was a family member whom I had previously met more than once. Had she been ten years older, I would have accepted her request straight away.

I’d been wrong to discriminate, to think that because of her age she and I couldn’t walk in the same online world. And why shouldn’t all children – once they’re old enough – have the right to move and play and socialise online? The objections that people have to being friends with children on Facebook are usually along the lines of, But I upload photos that aren’t child-appropriate and I want to say whatever I want on my Facebook wall. These are fair enough objections, but there are ways around things. Facebook’s privacy settings allow you to block certain elements (photos, friend lists, etc) from certain friends, without having to unfriend them altogether. A good guide to these privacy settings was posted on Mashable this week.

The Safer Internet Day people are right to encourage parents and kids to be friends online and to educate all parties about the pros, cons and privacy ills of sites like Facebook. Because the open nature of the web means the best form of protecting children is to join them, not ban them.

There is plenty to be said for sitting with children while they’re online and talking to them about the internet, but actually being their Facebook friend, watching them socially network and participating in their lives – both offline and online – is the most constructive manner in which kids can learn the ways of the web.

I don’t have children myself but I find it incredibly frustrating meeting and hearing about kids who are on Facebook and similar sites without the knowledge or participation of their parents or teachers. Thankfully this is rapidly changing and while there’s lots more kids on Facebook now than there were a year ago, a lot more parents and teachers are aware of it now. And I take some comfort in Safer Internet Day, because the number of kids on Facebook is sure to continue soaring.

There comes a certain time in a child’s life when they no longer want to sit at the kids’ table. They want to sit at the adults’ table for a bit. Try a sip of wine and decide they don’t like it. See how the grown-ups talk to each other, before Bed Time is announced and it’s time to brush teeth. It’s an important part of growing into a social world. And including kids in the online equivalent is just as important.

3 thoughts on “Why Can’t We All Just Be Friends (on Facebook)?”

  1. I agree, Andrew!

    For teachers, the water can be murky with duty of care, teachers’ personal distance etc.

    There’s a great UK educationalist called Stephen Heppell whose daughter is also a teacher – together they’ve compiled a few tips to using Facebook as a teacher: http://www.heppell.net/facebook_in_school/

    He also shared his view with a group of Melbourne education types last year, which is that Facebook has done more for extended family relationships than any other technology. I definitely feel closer to my aunties and cousins than ever before.

  2. Hi Andrew,
    Again I am impressed with your writing, however I do not think you tackle a couple of big issues related to Facebook. Once on, never off: what you write now stays on the web forever more. Until kids can really understand how incredible that is then I reckon delaying Facebook is best. After all we all do stupid things and say stupid things…best to keep those times away from public display. My other issue of social networking is the pressure it puts on young people to respond in some form (either texting, Facebook, email, telephone) at all times. I wonder what the end result will be for a generation of young people that have not had silence in their lives…?
    Still your points are really important and I will again discuss this with my family. I already know what my 12 year old will say…
    Thanks very much for writing on this issue.

  3. We share some points but I think all Facebook-Twit thing is sick. If we told that ‘you all have to post your personal life in this site’ than they wouldn’t like it. Now I can find a brazilian boy’s ‘last-night awwwsome party photos’ It’s not normal as an adult too.

    [Unrelated: They say social media is an out for freedom but every government can find you. There’s no anonymouse in this world. I’m writing this comment, now there’s one more google result for my mail.]

    After 10 years kids will be a ‘normal’ part of this social sickness.

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