"Mom, I Love You, But Please Don't Friend Me on Facebook"

Navigating family dynamics in social networking.

Posted May 06, 2011

"My life is over," my friend wailed into the phone after greeting me. Usually upbeat and not prone to dramatics, her unusual mood was startling. "What's going on?" I cried.

"It's my Mom," she said sadly. Immediately, I began to panic. I had known my friend-- and her mother-- for more than 25 years. They were like family to me.

"What happened?"

"She's learned how to text message."


As new Facebook users begin to skew older, and even your Great Aunt Mavis gets a smartphone, it's become a common conundrum: your parents have popped into your online life, and their tiny digitized faces-- or more commonly, that generic blue and white sillouette (they never were that good with uploading photos)-- are now staring back at you with a friend request. Or their words are popping onto your phone-- and your consciousness-- night and day, with an intimacy and immediacy that was never there before. Or now your occasional emails have turned into pleas to video conference so they can check out that new haircut for themselves. For some people, it's wholly positive: "Now we can keep in better touch, since we live so far away!" But for still more, it can be a nightmare.

Parents of teenagers seem to have figured it out more clearly: they tend not to friend their children on Facebook, but have a series of spies in seemingly "cooler" grownups who have. Parents of full-grown adults, however, tend to have less hesitation in their friending, especially when there are grandchildren involved. But that doesn't mean it won't send their children running for the antacid.

Common complaints include feeling an invasion of privacy (which is rather ironic, given that everyone from your third-grade next-door neighbor to your sister's ex-boyfriend has already similarly invaded it without fanfare), feeling frustrated with your parents' lack of Facebook savvy ("Hmmm.. I don't think Dad actually realizes what LOL means!"), and just generally feeling uncomfortable with a certain intangible boundary being bulldozed (call this last one the "ick" factor.)

In The Friendship Fix, I've written much about the line between friends and family becoming blurred, and what a positive thing that can frequently be. But parent-child relationships, in particular, are often more complicated. In fact, the role of daughter or son is not easily meshed with the role of friend-- let alone Facebook "friend." Even the closest and most loving of parent-child bonds can hit a stumbling block when Facebook is involved; you might consider your Mom your best friend, but that doesn't mean that you want her able to overanalyze your flirtatious wall posts or your Farmville habit. Even more often, parent-child relationships bear the weight of years of complex history that affect how both parties see each other. And they can sometimes make even the simplest of interactions an emotionally loaded experience. That starts to feel pretty weighty when they suddenly have open access to your online self twenty-four hours a day.

Perhaps that's what it's most about: one large aspect of feeling like a truly independent adult is getting to control how much we let people in. When a parent makes that friend request, there's an implicit feeling like we're losing some of that control; that our bubble of autonomy is being poked and pressured; that the ways that we have chosen to be different from them, and blaze our own path, are now being reopened to scrutiny and judgment.

Just as technology has brought the conundrum, though, it might also have brought a possible solution, at least for now. Two words (and your Mom never has to know):

Privacy controls.