Parenting & over-overparenting in the digital age

By Anne Collier

What struck me about danah boyd’s post about the helicopter-parenting of social media users was that the banning of Facebook forces young people “to choose between social status and parental obedience.” Though I wouldn’t put it exactly that way, my own parenting experience tells me she’s right. My 18-year-old and 13-year-old both use Facebook, although (and quite naturally) differently, because their Facebook experience is as much a reflection of who their friends are as who my kids are (and they’re at different points in their lives!). I’m not sure they’d lose social status if we banned Facebook, but they would lose out on a whole lot. Call me a bad parent, but I can’t imagine cutting that connection to their friends’ day-to-day interaction (the 18-year-old’s an adult, in any case, so I wouldn’t step in, but he did choose to suspend his Facebook activity for a while, feeling he was wasting too much time on the site; then, after a couple of months, he was back in with a much-trimmed friends list).

But Facebook is far from the all of it. I used to remind my younger son that some of the stuff communicated in the constant text messages and social networking of teen life is “drama,” a little like reality TV, because some people are into being in the public eye, maximizing their “publics,” and getting people in them caught up in it all – it’s like having a perpetual platform in all their peers’ cellphones and profiles. As danah has pointed out in the past, publics come in all sizes now. But I hardly have to remind him about it anymore – he himself refers to some of the more annoying stuff as “The Drama” now, which means he can separate himself from it, get some emotional space of his own. I think (I hope) that’s important media- and social-literacy training in which – and this I’m sure of – he’s fully engaged (but he’s also fully engaged in sports, thankfully – see this on why being online is, to German youth, simultaneously important and no big deal). While it’s so tempting to want to remove all online risk from our kids’ experiences, it’s better to let them learn how to assess it and develop resilience, I’ve learned from researcher Sonia Livingstone in the UK (see this).

But back to danah’s point about choosing. I agree: They shouldn’t have to choose between obedience to us and keeping in touch with their friends in a way that is now simply second-nature socializing. As she observes in talking with teens all over the US, their on-phone and online socializing are embedded in their everyday school life, peer groups, and relationships. None of that is all good or all bad – some of it’s disturbing (and all of it’s much more visible to us than our social lives were to our parents, which increases our cognitive dissonance) – but somehow we learned how to negotiate it when we were kids (knowing our parents were there for us) and, for their own good, our children need to learn those lessons too. Let’s not let our cognitive dissonance get in the way of their wisdom development. [See also “Parenting & the digital drama overload,” “Most teen social Web users well-adjusted,” this on how soft-power parenting works better, and “Parental faux pas on Facebook,” by my friend and fellow parent and blogger Sharon Cindrich.]

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