Teens, parties and Facebook


It is my daughter’s birthday next week and this has led me to thinking: what is the best way to celebrate a teenage birthday? Do we have a big bash and invite all of her friends for a party during the school holidays? Is it too late to get invitations out to ensure people attend? What is considered a ‘successful’ party? What if no one shows up? Do we use Facebook to alert and invite friends to a birthday event? Does she want a big party – or can it wait until her 16th?

How do teens want to celebrate their birthdays at 13, 14, or 15 years of age? In our case it will be an intimate event with family and a few friends, and undoubtedly celebrated over a few days (or weeks). At what point does the desire for a smashing party kick in? Is it at 16 (sweet or not)? Is home the ideal venue, a restaurant or scout/public hall? Do family members get an invite – or are they too uncool? How many people should be invited: 2, 2,000 or 200,000? How does social media change the way a party is arranged?

Last month a 15-year-old girl in Sydney’s north shore (known as ‘Jess’) was grappling with such a dilemma. Jess posted an invitation for her 16th birthday party on her Facebook page. According to a news report she wanted her school friends to come, and they could bring their friends too. In her haste she created an ‘open invitation’ included her home address and phone details, and hoped for a better outcome than the year before where only 2 guests attended her party. Within 24 hours she received 20,000 responses accepting the invitation, where she promptly shut the event down!

Viral party invitation
Unfortunately for Jess, someone re-activated her invitation (as a fake event) and it went viral, attracting almost 200,000 acceptances. The police were notified, the party cancelled, a public announcement made regarding the hoax, and her Facebook profile has been wiped. What started out as an innocent invitation to a 16 year-old girl’s party, turned into an out-of-control event of massive proportions. No individual wants a dud party, but they also don’t want a cancelled one either!


Facebook use: a lesson in social media use 
Parents are not always aware of their kids’ Facebook activities – but rather than ban them altogether (and turning social media into forbidden fruit that is all too tempting to access illicitly) – it is critical to educate our kids about privacy settings. Moreover, it is imperative for all of us to keep up-to-date with these settings, as they are constantly changing. Complacency is not an option (no matter how attractive)!

Communication is the key – even if our kids are not our ‘Facebook friends’ that should not be a barrier to good old-fashioned face-to-face communication. I think it is important to talk to our kids to try to find out what they are discovering via social media. In my research I am finding divergent philosophies regarding Internet use. Not all parents have Facebook accounts and thus no precondition of ‘friendship’ with their kids. However, these families appear to have open communication and trust inherent in their interactions. Also the parents believe that self-regulation is the best method for developing responsible teens. Others regulate the Internet via parental control software to ensure late night Internet activity is prohibited (self-regulation is difficult when some kids have no “off button”)!

There does not seem to be a definitive ‘best way’ of doing things – it will depend on the personality of the kids, the style of parenting we employ, and numerous other variables. What lessons can you share?


Teens, technology and sharing information

Isn’t it funny when we as parents, or researchers, ask a young person, that is, adolescent, teenager, or young adult, what they think of all the new technology that is available? They look bewildered (or is that frustrated?), roll their eyes and remind us that there is nothing unusual in their experience – it is normal! Normal to have a Facebook account (Myspace lost its status as ‘cool’ very early); to Google for information regarding any query; to download music and videos; and ultimately to have an online presence and identity. But perhaps most significantly, it is normal behaviour to share information in the digital world.

Digital Footprints

When my daughter has her 21st birthday party (and it is still some years away yet) the advantage of digital technology is that I will be able to find a vast array of embarrassing moments at the click of a mouse, or finger swipe across a screen! All those digital images add up to a significant digital footprint.

In a poll conducted by AVG last year, the following information about digital downloads/uploads of images of very young children was ascertained:

1 – The average age at which a child acquires an online presence courtesy of their parents is at six months, and by the time they are two 81% of children have some kind of ‘digital footprint’.
2 – A third (33%) of children have had images posted online from birth
3 – A quarter (23%) of children have even had their pre-birth scans uploaded to the Internet by their parents
4 – Seven per cent (7%) of babies have even had an email address created for them by their parents
5 – More than 70% of mothers said they posted baby and toddler images online to share with friends and family

See: AVG Blogs | J.R. Smith http://jrsmith.blog.avg.com/2010/10/would-you-want-a-digital-footprint-from-birth.html#ixzz1ErsaHZYx

Unlike footprints in the sand, our digital footprints leave a trace that is not necessarily washed away – I am uncertain about whether this is something that we need to be concerned about. I have noticed that many parents create online profiles of their very young children on social networking sites as a means of sharing precious moments. Rather than being placed in private family photo albums, they are distributed in the public domain. It seems to be standard practice to share photographic memories online. It starts early, and then teens continue to interact, connect, play, explore, learn and communicate in the digital world. It is normal for these kids to post pictures of themselves in a variety of situations. It will make locating those amusing pictures for the purpose of celebrating a rite of passage into adulthood all the more trouble-free.

The Dilemma of the Digital Parent

In an age where digital devices proliferate, how is it changing the way we parent our children? Being a parent requires amazing skills including (but not limited to) being well versed in: management techniques, logistics, creativity, sociability, consultation, culinary endeavours, counselling, as well as dexterity, tolerance, having medical expertise (or at least basic nursing abilities), pragmatics and general knowledge. Factor in balancing work obligations, social connections and maintaining a home life – is it any wonder parents find  escape in their Facebook accounts, tweets and texts? The very same thing that they complain their kids do too much of!

Sherry Turkle has recently published a book ‘Alone Together’ that investigates parental use of technology and how it affects our children. Her study was conducted over 5 years, with 300 interviews of various family members. What she has surmised is that children often feel hurt, jealousy, and competition for attention. The difference in our communication with our kids can be influenced by whether our devices are switched on or off.

As parents we have often complained about the tunnel vision that our children get when in front of a screen (and screens are now as small as the palm of our hands). But we neglect to look at our own behaviour when it comes to digital technology. Are we (as parents) as addicted to our technology and the  connections provided as our kids? Is future family togetherness to be mediated by texts, tweets and social network status updates? Are we becoming less present to our kids?

Here’s an interesting quiz to determine your digital parenting style:


This was my result on the Protection-Empowerment scale: Although you are concerned with protection, it is more important to you to empower your child and his or her use of digital media. You find ways to get involved and increase the benefits of digital media. You recommend Web sites to your child and suggest age appropriate ways for him or her to participate online.


Taking our technology from home and on holiday

Once upon a time information and communication technologies (ICTs) were unfamiliar and mysterious to us, simultaneously exciting and threatening. Over time, and with experimentation, our experience and confidence with it has increased. Now technology is like a family pet – a ‘domesticated animal’ and part of our everyday lives. It is familiar to us, it no longer holds exotic appeal, and is just a part of the mundane family routine.

 Our homes are filled with a plethora of technological devices including multiple television sets, personal computers, digital music players, fixed and mobile telephones, fax machines, DVD players and electronic game consoles – the family home is a communication hub, enabling family members to perform many activities in a variety of times and spaces. In many cases, the home is better equipped than our offices and work places! The Australian Media and Communication Authority (ACMA) has published numerous reports supporting the notion of ‘media rich’ family homes. It has been found that socio-economic and demographic characteristics, such as household income, parent education, whether we are couples, or single parents, or where we are located, are not barriers to accessing electronic media (at least in Australia). Some of the statistics and trends include:

  •  As at June 2010, approximately 89% of Australians aged 14 years and over were estimated to have used the Internet as some point in their life (ACMA Communications Report 2009-2010):
  • Of those Australians using the Internet, the home and work environment remained the most common sites of Internet use, with 95% of Internet use being at home, and 46% of Internet use at work (ACMA 2010)
  • Teens and young adults are the heaviest (online more than 15 hours per week) Internet users
  • We are increasingly accessing the Internet via mobile devices
  • Technological advances make new technology affordable and available – and families adapt and transform these technologies to meet their own purposes
  • Technology inhabits numerous sites in the home and in multiple quantities, pervading every nook in the domestic realm

 It is clear that our homes are embedded with technological devices – from the humble TV to complex home theatres; a dinosaur desktop computer to small laptops and tablet technology. Communicating, research, shopping, banking, entertainment and distractions are a click or finger swipe away.

 What happens when we leave the comfort of home? In our everyday lives we have access to wireless mobility via smart phones and other portable devices. Is this having an impact on how we spend our time? Could it be changing our habits and behaviours when we take a family outing or holiday?

 The summer holiday period has recently come to an end – a good time to reflect on what we did, how we did it, and what we managed to live without! I was able to take a few days away in Queensland (before the floods) and spend a few glorious days on the beach at Labrador. I am one of those people that prefer to be as unencumbered as possible when at the beach – so you generally won’t be able to contact me via mobile phone when I am enjoying the sun, sand, and surf. However, I wonder if I am in a minority – many people appeared to have their phones with them at the beach. Given that our mobiles are multi-functional devices, this is not surprising – we can take a photo of a great moment, keep in touch with loved ones, and send our bosses emails too (although that idea tends to negate the concept of being on holiday). However, remaining ‘connected’ via mobile devices on family outings appears to affect the quality of our interactions.

 What I observed in this beach environment were groups of mothers with their toddlers arranging themselves to have instant access to their Iphones or Blackberries (or other smart phones). Some of the mum’s did not let go of their phones for the duration of their beach stay. They were either talking on their phone, texting, or scrolling through information. At no point did they enter the water, or appear to play with their toddlers – always maintaining one hand and full eye contact with their smart screens. One toddler begged her mother for attention while the mother kept one hand on the phone, eyes locked on the screen, and the other hand was waving beckoningly in the air as if to convey “see, I am paying attention…watch the hand.” There were other parents that were more involved with their children, engaging in water play, sandcastle building and the locating of hermit crabs. Mobile phones were not in-hand, but when a ringtone was heard, play would be paused for the call to be answered, until the call was over. Reports in the media are surfacing about the ‘chronic media distraction’ that parents are suffering from by being stuck in the Blacberry zone  or continuously plugged in. Whilst at the beach, are we searching, scrolling and sending rather than slipping, slopping and slapping?

 I also spent some time on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, meandering my way through the foreshore of Rye and Rosebud. I walked through the camping grounds and saw some amazing setups that were the campers’ equivalent of the Taj Mahal. Many sites had their own TVs (that were left on, while the campers were out – same media habits, different location); most had radios/CD players, some had DVD players, laptops and numerous portable digital devices. The comforts of home can still be enjoyed while camping. Many holiday destinations offer wi fi connectivity – so we never have to miss out on Facebook updates, emails or our favourite TV shows. The mobile phone offers a great alternative to the baby monitoring device (though our babies are now teens – and they do not always respond to our prompts for information or attention)!

A lot of interpersonal interaction is being displaced by instant messaging (IM) or phone text-messages (SMS). This means that our intimate family conversations have a digital afterlife – I do not know what the implications of this phenomenon might be – other than the prospect of having traces of past conversations cut and paste to create new meanings in different contexts. Will we censor ourselves more? This is an entirely different topic that I will pursue in a future blog. In the meantime, I simply wanted to share some of my observations (and some of the photographs I took associated with them). It would be great to hear what other people have seen, heard or experienced in relation to family interactions, technology and being on holiday.

Parenting in the Facebook Age

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?