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Is Denying Facebook Ruining My Kid's Social Life?

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A few years ago, it was easy to tell my eighth grader that she was too young for Facebook.

Boy using laptop

Sarah Bowman: We managed to stave off the inevitable until the start of ninth grade, but my rising eighth grade son has only one refrain of late: he wants to sign up now, before the school year. The logic? He'll be over the obsession phase and able to manage his social networking (and homework!) before school begins.

As if that obsessing is manageable. Like many old fogies, I joined Facebook before a big high school reunion, and found myself paging through photos of folks I forgot I even knew -- immersed in a curious mixture of present and past, showing off my kids before getting diverted by a few intense rounds of Text Twist. Suddenly an hour had gone by!

Which is exactly why I don't want my son to sign up at all -- Facebook is a tremendous time suck. For all its wonders (and they are many), it takes tremendous will power to rip yourself away from a constantly updating parade of social minutiae. Homework. Chores. Hanging out in the kitchen -- it all fades away. It's one thing for me to spend an evening catching up on 30-year-old friendships, but kids could spend all evening online and not keep current on hundreds of photo uploads from their friends. Teens wish each other a happy birthday online, learn about romances (and their demises), who went shopping for new shoes, or who just hung out at their friend's house taking (ridiculously inappropriate) photos. It's wonderful that this generation is so in touch with each other, but as teens turn their emotional attention outwards from the family, Facebook becomes another enemy in the battle to keep their attention when they're actually at home.

Where it gets particularly sticky for parents is that party invitations now get posted on Facebook. Sure, some beautiful card stock versions still arrive for special events, and the thoughtful parents still shoot e-mails around to make sure no one gets left out. But the instant gratification generation loves the rapid response (and green cache) of planning their social life online. Not only does this augment social envy (you KNOW when you're not included), it increases the likelihood of parties being widely attended, and getting out of control.

Even so, I suspect that most families will give in to the kids' petitions -- if they haven't already -- shrugging in compliance because they're afraid their kid will fall behind in the proverbial social loop. Eventually, I'll allow my guy access and then, the parenting task will be to limit his access to yet another screen. His argument? Time spent on Facebook actually inserts him into an active social community, and isn't that preferable to the passivity of television or gaming?

Isn't that the point of a social network, after all?

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