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Question: My 15 year old son spends a lot of his time on facebook. I do check it periodically and have not seen anything that causes me great concern (some, well, expressive language and other teenage boy stuff) but I still worry. He tells me he knows all of his facebook friends but I don’t know them. I can see that he really enjoys his facebook time and it certainly is a great way for the kids to communicate, but I am not sure if I should be more vigilant.

 

Answer: I think the question of how vigilant to be around our children’s internet and social media use is a very important one. The fact that you are discussing your son’s use of these online sites is a great start, and periodic checking even better. We wouldn’t let our children get in the car, talk on the phone, or meet an older stranger without our permission. Why would we let an online relationship develop that we don’t know about?

I think you are wondering how much trust you should have in your son’s ability to navigate his personal and private life without you. In earlier generations, (perhaps our own), teenage “bad behaviour” wasn’t documented for the world to witness. If we used profanity, smoked a cigarette, or did anything that we really didn’t want our parents to know about, it stayed private within our circle of friends unless we “made a mistake” and left some evidence. Our parents certainly didn’t get to see a picture of us doing the thing we didn’t want to get caught doing. We got to “try out” some behaviours (hopefully safely) just as your son is using “expressive language and other teenage boy stuff”.

So we want to allow our children to develop a private life away from us, but we need to talk with them about how to be safe in the world (both online and in the physical world), how to be respectful to others on-line, and the importance of non-virtual, face to face, real life relationships.

Here are my specific thoughts for you. Sit down with your son and make sure you are both 100% in agreement with the rules for Facebook in your family. Confirm with him that you will be asking to see his Facebook page (do this with him) a couple of times a week, but don’t tell him exactly when you will do this. You will want to know exactly who all his “friends” are and that you will also want to check out some of his “friends” pages too. You are basically helping reinforce to him that his Facebook page is not the place to put private information about him or others. I would discuss with him the ways in which he can have privacy with his friends, most notably in person or on the phone.

The next conversation with him would be about being respectful to others on-line and how to be aware of the ways Facebook and other social media sites can have a very depersonalized and disconnecting effect on our relationships. If we are not physically present (or at least by voice on the phone), we are less likely to experience the impact we have on each other, allowing ourselves to say and do things to others virtually that we would never do to a “real” person standing in front of us. If you see any of your son’s comments, or his friends comments, begin to take on this disconnected tone, address it right away. Talk with him about what impact this might have on the person being written about and how they might feel. We need to help our children continue to feel empathy for others, just as importantly as a bystander.

The last thing I want to talk about is your statement that “my son spends a lot of time on Facebook.” I am not sure how much time this means, but I would suggest that you do some thinking about how much time you want him to be on facebook or other similar sites. I think that if we are careful not to equate time on facebook with time with friends (these are not equivalent), but rather time he is spending alone without real connection with others, we might re-evaluate the time we allow our children to use the site.

 

 

Julia Staub-French, M.A., R.C.C. is the Director of Clinical Programs at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.