With over 500 million users (Facebook statistics), Facebook is clearly embraced worldwide. The social networking site is increasingly prevalent in of the world of families, and becoming more of a parental concern. A survey by AOL (AOL survey 2010) alerts us to the fact that teens using Facebook do not personally know all the friends they have accepted. When you look at some of the figures in terms of the sheer number of ‘friends’ some of these teenagers have got – I wonder if it is possible to know them all? My stepdaughters at 13 and 15 years of age have almost 400, and over 700 ‘friends’ respectively (and these figures do not remain static). My own daughter presents the polar opposite experience: she has no Facebook friends – she absolutely refuses to start a Facebook account (and let me be honest here, there is a part of me that is very proud and supportive of her social networking rebellion – LOL).
I hear stories from some of the teens that I have researched, and from conversations with my own daughter’s friends about how they use the social networking site. Part of the use is related to filling in time – ‘doing something while there is nothing to do.’ Or having it on in the background – an ambient reminder that they are connected to other folk that are also doing homework, listening to music, and stalking their favourite friends (or ex-friends) on Facebook! The main reason underlying the activity is to be connected to their peers (or at least avoid being ostracised); remaining in the loop; and keeping up with what is going on at all times. Is there also a social imperative to accumulate as many friends as possible?
Is this what social networking is about for teens – connecting with as many people as possible? There is no ubiquitous response to such a question. Every individual’s experience is unique – but there are emerging patterns. According to Facebook statistics the average number of friends per person is 130. For teens this figure can go much higher.
When I talk to kids about Facebook, one of their first questions to me is: “How many friends do you have?” When I announce that I have fewer than 100, I can see them rolling their eyes (as I have exposed my ‘loser’ status due to my apparent lack of friends). I candidly inform them that I have declined numerous friend requests (and I admitted to ‘unfriending’ a few, thus making my list even smaller; and then there are those that ‘unfriend’ me). They look at me incredulously and ask, “Why would you do that?” And I tell them that I prefer to connect with people who I actually know, and am not merely distantly acquainted with (among other reasons). This seems counter-intuitive to their own need to collect as many friends as possible to develop a superior (revered?) status among their peers.
I cannot imagine knowing such a vast number of people – certainly not as ‘friends.’ Though I can attest to ‘knowing’ a considerable quantity of people, due to the nature of my work – teaching and researching at a university exposes you to hundreds of students, staff and other colleagues. I could also include all the people I went to primary school with, high school, and university (undergrad and postgrad). Are they my friends on Facebook? No. I am not even a Facebook friend with my PhD supervisor – that would be too much like being friends with a parent (and my own parents are not at all interested in joining the Facebook revolution)! But that is my unique experience. The teen experience according to the AOL/Nielsen survey was that over half of them claimed they did not personally know all of their Facebook friends, while the parents knew half or less of their kids friends online.
Clearly parents are concerned about the Facebook phenomenon. The AOL survey identified that 70% of parents are friends with their kids on Facebook. However, almost a third of teens desired to ‘unfriend’ their parents, with twice as many teens wanting to ditch mum as a friend rather than dad (although mum is more likely to have a Facebook profile than dad). For 41% of teens, getting access to Facebook was conditional on being mum’s ‘friend.’ The study was jointly conducted with Nielsen and surveyed over 1,000 parents, and 500 children between the ages 13 to 17 years in an online poll. The remaining 59% is what I wonder about? Do their parents know that they are on Facebook? If 30% of teens want to ‘unfriend’ their parents, can we assume there are 70% of teens that are content with the status quo? There are cases where the child requests the friendship of the parent, and that of the parents’ friends. This could be a strategic move to populate the friend list quickly.
While teens are exploring their identity and gaining independence via social networking sites, having parents monitor their actions can be a disincentive to post inappropriate comments. Alternatively, Facebook provides a window to information that is otherwise unknown to parents. “I didn’t know my son was in a relationship until I saw that his Facebook status had changed” said one parent to me about being ‘friends’ with their son. The ‘friending’ issue has stimulated the production of a variety of sites including http://www.myparentsjoinedfacebook.com, that receive numerous examples from teens (and others’), about embarrassing comments posted by parents on their Facebook pages. There is even a YouTube video on the topic: My mum’s on Facebook! which has received over 1.2 million views! The web also provides information on parenting issues: Facebook tips for parents.
So what is a modern-day parent to do? Is Facebook a phase that your teen will grow out of (and how many years will it last)? Or will they move to tweeting?