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.


Georgia W

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.

Chris Gordon

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.

Gül Eftaridis

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.