Cut the Facebook umbilical cord

We need to keep some social spaces separate from family.

Trent M. Kays


Social media certainly has provided an abundance of positive and negative stories. I find this especially true of Facebook. The plethora of Facebook users runs the gamut from the affluent to the downtrodden. Social status isn’t important to Facebook; Facebook welcomes you no matter who you are or where you come from.

Of course, this often means that people who you’d rather not be Facebook “friends” with can find you. You don’t have to be friends with them, but in some instances, it doesn’t feel like much of a choice. There are some people in your life who you must be friends with. Otherwise, you would suffer their ire and inquisition.

As one who teaches and researches aspects of social media, I find things that happen on Facebook fascinating. In the beginning, Facebook was a “college students only” club. Then, like a virus, it spread and kept spreading until it became a global issue. Suddenly, questions we’d never heard before started arising: “Are you on Facebook? Do you want to be Facebook friends?” For some of my students, the former question is redundant; all of their friends are on Facebook. The latter question similarly becomes redundant because some of my students’ entire social circle is manifest on Facebook.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, yet, nor is it a good thing. For some, it is the reality of contemporary sociality and friendship. It would be naive to say Facebook has not changed 21st century social interaction. We see examples pop up that tell us things are different than they once were.

For example: In 2009, the head of the United Kingdom’s MI6 was accidently exposed and had his cover blown by his wife, a frequent Facebook user. Also, incidents of bullying on Facebook seem to be commonplace. While these issues may not be new, they are intensified by ready Internet access. Despite this, we shouldn’t blame the Internet. People make conscious decisions on how to interact with and embody social media. No one forces people to be unpleasant or degrading.

While incidents of a spy’s cover being blown are rare, Facebook has given us another issue to deal with: Facebook-friending parents. It seems only natural that parents would want to keep up with their children. If I ever have children, I will want to keep up with them. But, the entire act of connecting with your child on a social networking site originally conceived for college-age students smells of trouble.

We all move in and out of different social circles every day. We interact differently in these circles both consciously and unconsciously. Our identities are swept up in these interactions. Thus, it can be quite vexing when one circle begins to coincide with another. Consider this: If you were visiting your grandmother, would you speak to her in the same manner as you do with your roommate? Unlikely.

That being said, we can’t always control what happens in our circles or where they’ll take us. I maintain two Facebook rules: First, no family; second, no more than 100 Facebook “friends.” I’ve had these rules since I started using Facebook. These rules have kept me sane and have kept my parents from stumbling upon anything too risqué.

I certainly do not have questionable pictures or status updates on Facebook, and I don’t think my parents would disapprove of anything I do in that space. But that’s not the point. My Facebook space is a different social space than the one I have with my parents. I do my best to keep these two spaces or circles separate. I love my family, but having them interpolated into my social media spaces makes me twitch.

Moreover, it seems to make college students twitch, too. Many of my students say they don’t friend their parents on Facebook. They may have good reason. Some data suggests that 92 percent of mothers on Facebook are friends with their children on the social networking site. Close to half of those mothers are on Facebook solely to keep tabs on their children. So your parents might be Facebook stalking you.

This isn’t really a big deal, or at least, it isn’t a big deal to me. Facebook’s entire premise is that one person can have a tidy feed of what their friends are doing without said friends knowing when they’re being examined. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for parents to do the same, but it might complicate parental interactions. After every phone call or dinner, you wonder: Did mom see that photo? Did I make sure to set the privacy setting?

Indeed, these questions linger over many social interactions that move from Facebook to other social spaces. This syndrome, as it were, seems to establish a relationship in which children are never free from their parents. Certainly, I can understand the unwillingness of many parents to separate from their children after giving birth and raising them. That’s normal and expected. But there must be spaces where children have a place to finally be free from a parent’s scrutiny. It’s a valuable part of life, to enter the world and experience it on your own.

Some parents or guardians fail to understand the implications of social media sites. Our relationships with them don’t always translate over the Internet. The umbilical cord should be cut — sites like Facebook should be used with the user’s — not a parent’s — authority.