There’s Mum, Dad and three kids aged 8, 11 and 15 years old. For the purposes of this illustration we’ll call them the Smiths. The children have two sets of grandparents who live in the far north of Scotland and the other in Herefordshire. Their uncles, aunts and cousins live in London and Sydney, Australia. This is by no means an unusual family set up in the21st Century and social media has been essential to help the Smiths maintain a sense of being part of a larger family.
However, social media began to play a much more instrumental and immediate role in the Smith household when Mum got a new job and the whole family had to move to Birmingham.
How social media can keep families connected
To maintain relationships with their extended family and friends, they created a closed group on Facebook. The children’s school pals and friends from the neighbourhood were invited to join. Facebook provided a platform for the parents, children, their wider family and friends to share experiences – a rare enough thing in real life. It also provided numerous opportunities for “teachable moments” across a broad range of the topics and challenges that face youngsters as they make their journey towards adulthood.
Before we get too carried away with the clear benefits that social media can introduce into family life, here is a cautionary tale which urges some scepticism and care.
A tale of ‘good intentions’ on social media
Several years ago, before my son went off to University he and two of his mates went on a gap-year round-the -world tour. Before they set off the six parents met together with the three boys and offered them various pieces of advice or in some instances explicit instructions.
One thing the parents agreed on was that we would not ring the lads on their mobiles every hour to check they were still alive or hadn’t been seriously injured providing they kept us broadly informed of what they were up to and where they were via a social media site – at the time MySpace was the main one. We’d all be friends on it. No problem.
All went well. Once or twice a week I would log in. I was very impressed by how much reading they were doing on their travels, how many little old ladies they had helped across various obviously dangerous roads and the number of museums and ancient monuments they were visiting was truly impressive. I reproached myself for ever having doubted their collective devotion to the richness of our world’s different cultures.
Some eight months after they all got back safe and sound with all of their bodily parts intact and no enduring illnesses we discovered there were two MySpace profiles. One the parents knew about and read and another all their friends back in Blighty looked at. When this was uncovered I couldn’t bring myself to read “that one”. My wife did. She said it was very different and I was wise not to study it too closely, or indeed at all. So I didn’t.
It’s a question of trust and emotional maturity
Anyway the point of this story should be clear: even if you are a tech smart parent and you “friend” your child on their Facebook or another account, you can never be completely sure that you are getting the whole picture. If you knew your Mum was watching I am afraid the great majority of older children, particularly adolescents are going to be extremely careful about what they say, what they reveal and how they behave.
Indeed even in the family I referred to earlier there was no suggestion that all three youngsters’ engagement with social media was only channelled through the closed group set up to deal with the move.
It is true one hears about families where apparently the parents insist not simply that their children only use social media accounts they know about, in some instances rather than actually be a constant presence as a “friend” they also insist on having the password so they can log on any time they like to see what’s going on.
I am not going to say this is never a good idea. Every family is different and needs to find its own way of working but I am sceptical about its real value. It might make a parent feel they are being an activist and are engaging with their children but I wonder what the consequences truly are.
Getting right level of involvement to keep children safe on social
I can see a case for that level of involvement if a social media user is very young but as children start to get a bit older first of all they need some space of their own, where they can hang out and interact with their peers and believe me they will find or create it. So, here it comes down to a question of trust. As a parent if you think you need such a high degree of involvement with your adolescent children’s lives it’s perhaps more important to work out why and deal with that.