When Nancy Briggs’s 12-year-old granddaughter, Abby, invited her to become “friends” on Facebook, the popular social-networking website, she gladly accepted. Seven months later, Briggs, 66, who lives in rural Kansas, has 44 friends of her own on the site. But none are more special than Abby, who lives thousands of miles away. Facebook helps her keep up with the tween in a new way.
“I tried e-mails,” Briggs says, “but they were infrequent and had a tone of ‘Here’s a note to Grandma’ — telling me what I would want to hear.” Facebook offers her a window onto her granddaughter’s world. She can learn who Abby’s close friends are and see photos of them. She can see the news the girl exchanges with her peers and get an unfiltered sense of what matters in her life.
Some grandparents prefer traditional modes of contact, but in an increasingly mobile world, in which tweens and teens have evolved past phones to communicate with one another via text messages and Facebook “status updates,” it may be hard to keep up with the kids any other way — especially in families separated by great distances.
That’s Briggs’s status. “If you define old-fashioned relationships as hands-on, face-to-face, then I would say our very mobile society has taken that opportunity away for many grandparents,” she says. “We have to grab on to whatever is offered.”
Meet the Facebook generation
Facebook is no fad. Mark Zuckerberg, now 28, founded the site when he was a freshman at Harvard, as a virtual space for his classmates to connect. But it has grown far beyond his alma mater’s walls. Today Facebook claims 900 million active users around the world, more than half of whom visit the site at least once a day. The fastest-growing group of users is adults older than 35. Overall, more than 65% of adult Internet users use social-networking sites.
Social-networking sites are changing the way we interact with one another, and with our kids and grandkids. Traditionally, “our cultural networks [are] age-related,” says Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist for the Pew project. But the internet is changing that model. Today, different generations mix and mingle online in ways they never would in the public square: Sixty-somethings share Facebook “Wall” space with 16-year-olds; teens and tweens take responsibility for “tagging” photos of their grandparents’ anniversary party for the whole family to see.
When social worlds collide
These interactions, however, come with some pitfalls. Nancy Foote, 50, a grandmother of seven in Gilbert, Ariz., has “friended” her children and some of her former students, and says, “I hope that when my grandkids have Facebook — the oldest is 8 — they will be friends with me.” But while she appreciates the opportunity to check in with loved ones online, she says, “Sometimes I find out things I would rather not know.”
There’s a good reason the old model of kids running in separate social circles from their parents and grandparents has persisted for so long. As former President George W. Bush once said, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” Most grandkids are no different. But ever-present cell-phone cameras and widely-available Facebook pages have made public spectacles of what were once private moments of indiscretion. Parents, teachers, and college-admission and employment specialists strive to convince young people to watch what they do and keep embarrassing party pictures off the internet.
Foote says she’s concerned about some off-color language she’s seen on her granddaughter’s page, as well as stories that she’d put in the too-much-information file. Parents and grandparents who seek out their kids online must be prepared for the good and the bad. “We behave differently [with family] on Thanksgiving than when we’re hanging out at a friend’s house,” Lenhart says, although when kids know that their grandparents are watching, they’re more likely to edit what they post online.
To friend or not to friend?
The tumultuous tween years are marked by struggles, as kids strive to find an independent identity. To keep that process private, some kids won’t want to be Facebook “friends” with parents or grandparents. It’s not necessarily that they have something to hide. “This is as much about the privacy to grow as it is the potential to share,” says Chris Brogan, president of the social-media agency New Marketing Labs. Parents and grandparents should also resist the urge to “call out” kids on Facebook pages for all their friends to see. Remember, he says, that connecting with a tween on Facebook “puts that relationship on display for the child’s larger Facebook friendship base.”
What’s the right approach for a grandparent? Briggs suggests learning about Facebook, then talking with your grandchildren (the old-fashioned way) about whether they’d be comfortable becoming virtual friends. If they say no, don’t take it personally; everyone needs their own space. But if a grandchild invites you online, Briggs says, “jump right in!”