I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed when Lizzie came into my office and stood behind me.
"When can I get Facebook? I'm 13 now," she asked, adding, "And, you know, it's legal for kids to get Facebook once they turn 13."
"You're right. It's 'legal' now, but it's still up to parents to decide," I said. "Let me think about it and talk to Jeff."
I knew this was coming. Some of Lizzie's friends already had Facebook accounts, and she'd recently become curious about mine. ("Jeff, Mom's on Facebook again!")
Social media allows me to keep in touch with old friends and to post a scrapbook's worth of photos of Lizzie for family across the country and on the other side of the world, plus discuss issues and share information with people who aren't in the room. Since I work at home, I think of it as my little coffee break -- a chance to interact with people for a few minutes instead of staring at my walls or talking to my coffee mug. While for me, it may make staying connected easier, for teens, social media can mean opening doors to all sorts of potential problems: cyberbullying, inappropriate posts, new ways to waste time, and the equivalent of inviting strangers into a home. On the other hand, it's an easy way for Lizzie to stay in touch with some of her friends from when we lived in New York and from summer camp, in addition to communicating by email, Gchat and Skype.
Before we okayed Facebook for Lizzie, we asked her what she knew about Internet safety and talked to her about being responsible regarding the posting of sensitive information.
"We learned about all that in fifth grade," Lizzie told us, sighing. "I'm very careful."
She is. When she plays games online, she always asks before she gives out personal data. She deletes junk email and doesn't open attachments on forwarded email. I don't think I have to worry about her clicking links promising, "See Who Viewed Your Facebook Profile!" or "Get a Free iPad!" But posting online bits of her life is different. What if she inadvertently posted the name of her school or a photo of her house, with the address visible? Then there's always the possibility of a young teen posting without thinking it through: "I can't stand [name]." "English class really sucked today." I truly can't picture Lizzie writing anything like that (she loves English class and seems to have a natural filter the size of an aquifer), but as a parent, you just never know.
Facebook isn't the only online site to be concerned about. There's Twitter and whatever new social media all the kids will be using by the time you read this, on whatever new computing device is in vogue in the near future. Remember when experts recommended that parents keep the family computer in a central location to monitor their children's online life? That advice seems as quaint and outdated as tucking a shiny dime in your purse in case you need to call home when being courted by a boy. Lizzie takes my laptop into her room for homework. When I upgrade my laptop, we'll probably give her my old computer. Meanwhile, she uses her iPod to check her email, video chat with friends and surf the Internet -- and could easily use it to access Facebook, bypassing parental checkpoints. Technology is moving faster than the advice given to parents about how to navigate it, and many young teens unintentionally circumvent the computer safety rules of old -- many have tablets or smart phones, allowing for more unsupervised Internet freedom.
Not long after Jeff and I agreed Lizzie could get an account, I scrolled down my page's news feed. A friend's 15-year-old daughter smiled at me from a photo. Camera in hand, she'd shot a self-portrait through the mirror, wearing a smile and not a whole lot else. Her 675 friends, real and virtual, posted glowing comments about how she looked in her tiny bikini. She thanked them or "liked" what they said. I was stunned. Not only because I know this child -- she'll forever be emblazoned in my mind as a darling and precocious 5-year-old -- but because my 13-year-old daughter was about to get her own account.
My first thought (after the shock subsided) was, I'm glad she's got a positive body image. Then, I concluded that it's most likely something else entirely. I suspect many children post pictures like this because they're insecure and trying to see themselves through the eyes of others. I get this. As a teen, I was myopic; others' eyes lent a clarity that my hazel ones didn't have. But this is exactly what I'm scared of -- I would be horrified if Lizzie one day did something similar.
I have mixed feelings about "friending" children, too. When my teenage niece sent me a friend request, I informed my sister, wanting to get her okay before I accepted. I told her I'd been friended by a few other friends' children, but I always checked with their parents first. It's not that I post steamy photos or racy material, but occasionally, virtual conversations can veer in non-PG-rated directions. My sister assured me that her daughter had probably seen far worse than anything I would ever post. She said she monitors her daughter's posts and has made her take down a few inappropriate comments.
When Lizzie joined Facebook, she sent me a friendship request. Of course I accepted, but I wondered: Shouldn't there be more of a firewall between parents and kids? How much of our children's lives do we really need to know? Isn't privacy and independence a good thing? Can we become too mired in each other's lives? And frankly, I don't want to watch my language or police my postings/friends' comments knowing my daughter might have her ears pressed to the computer, to eavesdrop on my virtual conversations. I value my privacy. And I think Lizzie should have hers. I suppose I could alleviate the fear that she'll see inappropriate postings by setting up a "family friendly" subgroup. But I don't want to bother with that. And I assume Lizzie could set her privacy settings so I'd see only what she wanted me to. I truly don't think I'd have a problem with that. As with most of our parenting, my husband and I tell Lizzie we assume she will do the right thing. If she proves otherwise, then she loses our trust -- and we tell her it's hard to rebuild that. She seems to get it. We trust her to make good life choices, real and virtual.
So, we're trying to find the balance: a bit of a firewall is good, but too much of one isn't. When I was a child, there wasn't just a firewall between my parents and me -- it was the Great Firewall of China, undulating and impenetrable, stretching for many miles. I shared very little of my business with them. And to ensure my secrets stayed classified, my best friend and I discussed them in a made-up language both of us had learned as young teens. We were fluent in Gibberish.
Older and younger teens test boundaries. As a teen, I didn't just test limits; I think I earned an A-plus in pushing them. But with Facebook and the Internet, childish "mistakes" can be engraved forever in the ether.
I fell hard for my first real boyfriend. I chatted with him late into the night on my pink Princess phone, the one I kept in my bedroom and dragged around like a leashed dog through the shag carpet, here to my red vinyl beanbag chair, there to my bed. I was convinced I was in love and that one day we'd get married and stroll off, hand in hand, into the sunset. Our relationship wasn't based on love and mutual respect, though--it was based on control and manipulation. It was as if I'd somehow found the perfect dysfunctional starter relationship, one that worked with my insecurity to make me feel so protected and loved when I was with him and sink further into self-doubt when I wasn't.
It's not all that difficult to talk a girl into things when she's insecure and desperately wants to please. My boyfriend, in his low, sexy voice, told me he missed me deeply--even though we saw each other every single day--and wanted a little something to remind him of me when we weren't together. A lock of hair or a wallet-size class photo wouldn't do. Instead, I posed for him. Naked. He held my hand as we watched the Polaroid develop--it was probably more so than I was. As will happen when one is young and in an unhealthy relationship, we broke up and got back together and broke up and so on. When we broke up for what would be the last time, he gave the photo to my parents. He didn't threaten me with it; he just did it to embarrass me and to scandalize them. There was a knock on the door to my room. I remember the look of shock and disappointment on my parents' faces as they held the picture out to me. They ripped it up. I can still feel the pure relief that the photo was away from my ex-boyfriend and was gone forever, mingled with the knowledge that I'd let them down yet again. And disappointing my parents was pretty much my default mode as a teenager.
If today's technology existed then, I have no doubt I would have been stupid enough to pose for a phone pic for my boyfriend. And I'm sure he would have had no compunction about sharing it with hundreds of his Facebook friends or his entire e-mail list. This is the world Lizzie is entering: one with not just technology and its dangers, but technology combined with adolescence, experimentation, first loves, and first mistakes.
There used to be a learning curve for stupid teenage mistakes, one that it was possible to zigzag around. Now, with technology, it's easy to go slamming into the curve at full speed, flip over and wipe out, getting hurt permanently in the process. We try to get that message across to Lizzie the best we can but we also occasionally monitor her online activity since she is still a child.
And Lizzie's Facebook account? Turns out we didn't need to worry (yet, anyway). I recently asked her how she liked it.
She thought for about five seconds before responding, "You know, Facebook is actually kind of boring."
This is an excerpt from Mom, I'm Not a Kid Anymore: Navigating 25 Inevitable Conversations that Arrive Before You Know It, copyright © Sue Sanders, 2013. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment.