Like many Americans, we are a modern Facebook family. For me, social networking sites are part of my job; they're also a fun way to keep up with friends, relatives and former colleagues, and to connect with the occasional random stranger. For my kids, though, like most teens and tweens Facebook is practically a vital organ. Their lives can't function without it.
Nearly three out of four teenagers rely on some kind of social network, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. They participate for the same reasons adults do—to share stories and pictures, exchange messages, play games and so on. But they also use it for what Microsoft Research senior researcher Danah Boyd calls "identity performance": trying on virtual personalities in front of their peers, hoping to carve a niche in a permanently connected world.
Online it's easier and socially less risky for introverted teens to be outgoing, or for awkward kids to exude an aura of cool.
I see identity performance happening with my shy, cerebral son. He'd happily spend all day hiding behind the veil of his far more streetwise online self if we let him. That's one reason we periodically remove all electronics from his life: so he's forced to interact with people in the three-dimensional world. On the other hand, my socially adept daughter is the polar opposite. For her, technology simply enhances her real-world relationships sometimes a little too much. When she's not actually with her friends she's invariably chatting with them or texting. (This has become our secret weapon; when we need her to do homework, clean her room or just stop giving us so much lip, we threaten to take away her precious cell phone. Works like magic every time.)
The danger comes when kids mistake identity performance for reality, social networks for a social life or 5,000 Facebook friends for being popular. Vanessa Van Petten, founder of the teen-driven advice site Radical Parenting, says one of the dangers of social networks is they encourage a reliance on "cotton candy friends," who melt away when you need them most.
Parents can prevent this by talking to their kids and making sure they maintain a balance between actual friends and the superficial relationships that exist mostly online, says Nicole Ellison, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies social media. Generally, most people do; in Ellison's surveys, students recognize that only one in four social network friendships are "actual friends."
That said, there are advantages to kids' social worlds being on display. Thanks largely to Facebook, I'm much more aware of what's happening in my kids' lives than I might otherwise be. If a strange adult were to suddenly reach out to my daughter by posting on her wall or commenting on a status update, for example, I would know about it right away. And my son's friends chat with me more often than he does.
But tread carefully, warns Van Petten, or you might overstep social networking boundaries and cause your kids to lock you out. "Parents know they should have the sex talk or the drug talk with kids," she says. "But they should also initiate the Facebook discussion. They need to ask if they're allowed to comment on their kids' pictures or chat with their friends. While many adults don't think of navigating community networks as serious, to teenagers it's a very real instance of social life and death."