- Our Netiquette columnists explain the art of connecting with your kids online
- Don't just lurk, reading your child's tweets -- make yourself an account and follow him
- Ask your child for permission to "friend" her on Facebook
It's one of the pivotal scenes in "The Social Network," a eureka moment that implied a parting of the clouds, a spotlight-like beam of sun and a soft chord of angel voices: "Eduardo, I'm not talking about a dating site," says a chiseled version of Mark Zuckerberg. "I'm talking about taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online."
It sounded like such a lofty goal. But it was tiny compared to the network's current statement of purpose: Now, Facebook purports to "connect people with friends and others who work, study and live around them."
See how that purview yawned open like a chasm? By shifting their target from a small group of students to the entire human race, Zuck and his merry band of nouveau riche introduced the problem of intergenerational social networking.
Snob alert: We remember when Facebook was not only exclusive to colleges, but to elite colleges. That means we're especially nostalgic for the days when FB was a homogeneous morass of dorm-dwelling smart young adults, when you didn't have to worry about your 8-year-old cousin (who knows of no world without Facebook) or your 53-year-old aunt (who friends her whole contact list with abandon) seeing the NSFW music video your friend just posted on your wall.
And beyond Facebook, there's Twitter-following, blog-reading, and Instagram-following -- which obviously cross age brackets and generational lines, granting middle-age and older adults unprecedented access into the web-addled minds of young Americans.
We aim these tenets at you, clueless but well-intentioned parents of teens and young adults: You don't want to see too much, your kids don't want you to know too much, but somewhere in the middle, there's a pleasant way for everyone to stay in touch.
Public outlets are fair game.
Sounds obvious, but: If your child has a public Twitter feed, blog, Flickr account, and so on, he or she has no grounds to whine if you do some browsing. Privacy settings abound, and it often seems that the under-20 set in particular could use a reminder that if you make something public, surprise! Everyone can see it!
If your teen's still under your roof, of course, incriminating things she says or shows are fair game for discussion. Really, you're doing her a favor -- eventually, she'll be looking for a job, and those underage-drinking snaps won't exactly help her cause.
But at the same time ...
Follow, don't stalk.
Don't just lurk about, reading your child's tweets via a saved search for his username -- make yourself an account and follow him (and anyone else you're interested in following). Social networks are meant to be platforms for discussion, not one-way outlets for a single specimen's 140-character life updates.
Saving pictures he shares and making one your desktop (or e-mailing it around to the grandparents) is a bit odd, too, if you haven't already had a discussion. May we suggest: "I love those photos you posted from your weekend in Milwaukee! I'm going to show Nana the one of you two in front of that funky-looking art museum." Discovering after-the-fact that your Instagrams are making the family rounds feels, again, creepy, even if you know it's done with love.
For what it's worth, about two-thirds of teens are fine with being friends with their parents on Facebook, according to a survey by Kaplan test prep. I feel like if I were an angsty 15-year-old with my own laptop and a semi-private sounding board, I'd probably use Facebook to loudly roll my eyes about my parents (who are actually rad, let the record show, though what 15-year-old realizes that?), and ergo would have denied their FB friend requests.
We say: Talk it out. Avoid the awkward feeling around the dinner table while an elephant in the corner whines that Dad tried to be my friend without asking which is so totally weird and Junior rejected my friend request which is downright insulting and what is he hiding? DRUGS?
Try: "Would you mind if I friended you on Facebook? I promise I won't be constantly checking your wall, but I want to be able to tag you in those photos from the family reunion." Young-uns' lives are pretty public these days -- maybe he won't mind at all. But if he says no, let it go.
Don't humiliate your child on the Internet.
It's a stone-cold science fact: Humans between the ages of 9 and 15 are not particularly attractive. Think back to the photo albums from your junior high years; if they were anything other than awkward, you're probably one of those people who peaked in high school. Now, imagine your parents had taken that gawky photo of you -- red-faced and tinsel-mouthed, standing with terrible posture, a half-scowl on your face and your arm elbow-deep in a bag of Doritos -- and shared it with everyone in their Rolodex, leaving a permanent, eminently findable record of it for all to see and share for the rest of the time.
That's exactly what you're doing when you post an ugly photo online. If your kid's old enough to be self-conscious, ask him or her to approve a photo before hitting publish.
As for ugly updates of the less-literal kind, many of the same principles apply here as when we covered baby updates a few weeks back: If the news is disgusting, damning, or just plain humiliating, keep it to yourself -- or share it with a friend on that blissfully timestamp-free piece of technology: the telephone.