My kids are part of the first generation to grow up with their social lives entirely entwined with technology, like Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Very often I find myself wondering: How do these public forums impact their social lives?
I sat down with my eldest daughter, Michaela, and my niece, Allie, both in college, to ask them about how Facebook and other technologies affect their relationships. I asked about what it's like to have personal information spread so widely and quickly. They both laughed and launched into stories about online public displays of affection (lots of lovey-dovey comments and pictures) and embarrassingly public breakups (with all sorts of nastiness and details nobody wanted to know).
The drama all sounded incredibly familiar (there isn't enough money in the world to make me go back to being that age again), but the degree to which everyone instantaneously knew and got involved was different. "Public disrespect and airing of romantic or unromantic laundry isn't a new thing," says Michael Rich, MD, MPH, of Children's Hospital Boston's Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH). "Media hasn't caused it, but it's made it more efficient and wide-reaching."
This perspective is supported by a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life project, called "Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites." The report points out that 95 percent of teens ages 12 through 17 are online, with 80 percent of those online using social networking sites. Their lives are broadcast in ways that would have been unimaginable to older generations—and this includes their dating lives.
But that's the thing: As unimaginable as it would have been to us, it's completely normal to them. That's what I was really struck by as I talked to Michaela and Allie. They very matter-of-factly talked about how it works: If you like someone, you check them out on Facebook. Then, you wait for them to friend you instead of asking to be friends, because that's cooler. Unlike the people who publicly posted sickly sweet messages to their boyfriends and girlfriends, or talked about dating details, Allie and Michaela were very clear that they never did that. Communication with their boyfriends is through text messages, not through Facebook.
According to the Pew report, the majority of teens are like my daughter and niece. They keep their profile private, only allowing their friends (which on Facebook could be hundreds of people) to see it. And Michaela and Allie are among the half who don't post anything that they think might harm them in the future.
But that means that half are posting things that could come back to haunt them. The report also said that half are lying about their age and a third are sharing passwords, which can lead to all sorts of trouble. And even though the teens said that people are mostly kind online, when asked to describe how people behave in the online space, they used words like "rude," "mean," "fake," "crude," "overdramatic" and "disrespectful."
"Teens are more likely to say something online that they would never say in person," says Lauren Rubenzahl, program coordinator in the CMCH. "It removes some of the built-in mechanisms for monitoring themselves that they use when they talk face to face."
This is what the teens told the Pew researchers. They said that people act differently online than they do in person. There is a feeling of privacy and safety, even though they are not really private or safe.
According to the Pew report, teens do turn to parents for help and advice, so how can we help them navigate dating in the digital age?
The most important thing you can do is talk with your child about what they're seeing and doing online. You may not know how Facebook works, but you probably remember what it was like to be a teen with all its drama. Start there, and help them think through the ramifications (for them and their relationships) of their Facebook and other social media actions.
Some other suggestions for parents:
- If you're not on a social network, consider joining one so you can better understand what your child is experiencing. It's great if they "friend" you, but be understanding if they don't want to—wanting some privacy is very normal.
- To the extent that it's possible, try to keep computer use in a public space in the house. If they need to take their laptops to their room for quiet, check in with them regularly. Ask about what they're doing online.
- Make sure your child understands that once something is online, it's essentially there forever. There are no do-overs for college admission folks or future employers.
Remember to listen as much as you talk. Really, kids and parents are finding their way online together. Since our kids are the first tech-connected generation, we are the first generation of parents trying to guide them.
As with everything else in parenthood, we've got lots to learn from each other.