It started with a phone call. A family friend had seen something my then-13-year-old son had posted on Facebook, and it disturbed her deeply. So she called.
While on the phone, I looked up his Facebook profile. Sure enough, there it was: the disturbing status update. Violent, lewd, offensive? It was all of those things. It was also a lyric from a rap song I’d heard him singing earlier that day. But because he had failed to identify the source, it looked like it was coming from him.
“I appreciate your bringing this to my attention,” I said. “I will talk to him.” But I was really thinking, “Shouldn’t you be calling Jay-Z’s parents instead?”
Kids will be kids, and they’re going to make mistakes. But thanks to social networks, many of these mistakes are visible to total strangers half a world away. And this was hardly the first time my son had offended someone on Facebook.
There was the incident in the eighth grade when he borrowed his teacher’s smartphone at recess, logged onto her Facebook account and updated her status to “Dead.” It was a joke, but not one much appreciated by the teacher’s grandparents in Germany, who were quite upset and called to make sure she was OK.
Then there was the time he left a comment on a friend’s update that was just so rude I could not let it go. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember what happened next: I made the biggest mistake a parent can make on social networks, short of posting photos of oneself robbing a bank while naked. I gently scolded him and asked him to remove it. In the comments. In front of all his friends.
The next time I logged onto Facebook, I discovered that I had been summarily de-friended. This was totally unacceptable, I explained to him afterward. We have a firm rule: If you want to be on Facebook, your parents must be your friends, so they can keep an eye on your activity.
He reluctantly re-friended me. A week later I checked to see what he’d been up to. But I couldn’t, because he’d unfriended me again. I reiterated the rules: No friending, no Facebook, no computer, no nothing. After even more grumbling, he added me back.
About two weeks later, my son approached my wife and me as we were relaxing after dinner and explained, in very mature fashion, that his Facebook account had been corrupted and that he had to create a new one. He was telling us this, he explained, so we would not be surprised when we received a new friend request from him.
“Our little boy is all growed up,” we thought.
A few days later I went into my home office and found my computer on and already logged into Facebook. But it wasn’t my Facebook account; it was his. And it wasn’t his new account; it was his old “corrupted” one, where he had just posted a message to his friends: “Don’t contact me at that new account, I just created it to fool my idiot parents.”
His fingers didn’t touch a keyboard for a long time after that.
We also advised him that, if he was thinking about pursuing a life of crime, he should probably consider an alternate career path. But he did have a point about idiot parenting. In trying to teach him a lesson about how to behave on social media, I ended up learning a few myself.
By the time my daughter was old enough to have a Facebook account, I had wised up, slightly. We started out by having “the Facebook talk” to discuss appropriate behavior — both hers and ours.
We asked her to not use her full name, location, real birthday, or age in her profile, and to never make any other personal information public. (Yes, I know — Facebook insists your information be authentic so it can better target ads to you. Well, Zuckerberg can bite me.) We also discussed the Granny Rule: Never post anything she’d be ashamed to show Nana, her surprisingly tech-savvy grandmother.
Sighing heavily, she agreed to allow us (and Nana) on her friends list, but only if we made ourselves as invisible as possible. We could see what she posted to her wall, but we weren’t allowed to post or comment. We could lurk, but we could not Like.
Since then it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Occasionally, I’ve broken the Do Not Like rule and been banished for short periods. I know she also maintains separate accounts that Nana doesn’t know about. But, so far, no angry phone calls, no emotionally distraught German grandparents.
Both she and her brother, now 14 and 17, have mastered the rules of the social media world better than most adults of my acquaintance. But they don’t use Facebook as much as they used to. Like a lot of teens, they got tired of being on the same social network as their hopelessly unhip parents and moved on to Tumblr, SnapChat, Kik, Vine and others, each of which poses its own unique parenting challenges.
In a way that’s a shame. Despite its faults, Facebook opened a window into my kids’ lives that really isn’t available anywhere else. I see who their friends are and how they interact in a way I never would in real life. It’s also a relatively safe environment for teens to learn how to navigate the universe they’ll be inhabiting as adults.
Bottom line: If you want to keep your kids from making stupid mistakes on social networks, it helps to not make them yourself.
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