The question that I had been dreading came at last: “Mom, can I have a Facebook page?” My daughter provided a strong defense: she’s 13, so she meets Facebook’s Terms of Service age requirement; she’s nearly an adult in her religion’s eyes (her bat mitzvah is in a week); past practices proves she’s responsible; and well, she feels ready. (And I just discovered, she’s done her homework: see this Yahoo Answers! “My mom won’t let me get a Facebook page, how do I convince her?” thread that I found on my computer).
Next came the conversation. We talked about how increasingly social media activity is part of one’s life’s biography. Anything said and done in social network spaces becomes part of who you are in our Information Age. Colleges may ask for your Facebook password. Over 70% of employers look at social media data for interviewing and hiring (and sad to say, the outcomes are grim for applicants who over 60% of the time don’t get the interview or job due to social network profiles). It’s not just what you post that speaks volumes — your social network (friends and their friends) tells some of your story for you. There goes any control that you thought you had. FB users often wrestle with whether they should de-friend those whose online personas don’t match their sensibilities (or the way in which they want others to perceive them). This means that users need to keep a careful eye on their friends’ profiles (as well as ever-changing privacy settings).
That’s a lot of responsibility. Or, as Bill Keller of the New York Times put it when he allowed his 13-year old daughter to join Facebook, he felt “a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.” Beyond the potential privacy and reputational concerns that accompany social media use, an online life has other potential perils, like overuse (and thus inattention to studies, face-to-face family time, etc.) that cyber-pessimists underscore (see Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows). And bullying, serious harassment, bigotry increasingly appear in mainstream social media in ways that kids can’t necessarily avoid (my work explores those problems, see here, here, and here, as well as terrific work by guest bloggers Ari Waldman and Mary Anne Franks). Of course, there’s also lots of positive stuff emerging from these networked spaces. Social media outlets like Facebook allow us to enact our personalities. They let us express ourselves in ever-changing and expanding ways. FB and other outlets host civic engagement as Helen Norton and I have emphasized.
I wonder, too, if my kid has a meaningful choice. Can digital natives really stay away from social media if all of their friends socialize there? And will employers and colleges expect that applicants partake in these activities because everyone else does? Someday, will resisting having a Facebook profile express something negative about you? Will it signal that you’re not socially adjusted or successful? As Scott Peppet underscores in his work, we may be forced to give up our privacy to show that we are indeed healthy, social, smart, and the like. That’s a lot to process, right? I’m going to chew on this a while. Your thoughts are most welcome!