Friended by Mom and Dad on Facebook

Students worry about 'friend requests' from their parents.

December 31, 2008, 11:58 AM

Jan. 3, 2009 -- The Facebook group entitled "For the love of god -- don't let parents join Facebook" has 5,819 high school and college-aged members who want to stop the growing number of parents who are joining Facebook, the massively popular social networking site, from "spying" on them.

Many Facebook users already know that employers, teachers and admissions officers at universities use Facebook to check up on potential employees or students, but the recent dramatic increase in the number of parents using Facebook seems to disturb many younger users more than the presence of any other demographic.

"It's really weird that nonstudents and parents use Facebook," said Emma Gaines, a Tufts University sophomore. "It makes me feel really uncomfortable that my older aunt has Facebook, because she says that she likes to check up on her teenage nieces and nephews and takes our pictures for her own use. That's creepy."

Facebook was previously available only to college students -- users were required to provide a college e-mail address in order to sign up -- but in September 2007, it opened its doors to all, though it recommends users be at least 13 years old.

This change sparked a nationwide increase in the number of Facebook users above student age -- in the year from May 2006 to May 2007, for example, the marketing research company Comscore reported that the number of users over the age of 25 increased 279 percent.

While Comscore also reported a 149 percent increase in that same time frame for ages 12-17, the increase for the 25-plus group is particularly pertinent because this group is composed mainly of nonstudents, while the 12-17 group is composed of middle and high school students.

Additionally, the 279 percent increase is certainly not restricted to parents -- many corporations and activist groups also form Facebook groups to advertise or to generate publicity. However, the increase in these groups has bolstered the increase in parents on the site, which is exactly the problem for the apprehensive students who don't think parents should be allowed on the site.

With the change to general admission for anyone who wants to use Facebook, parents can "friend" their children on the site, which allows them to view their personal information, photos and "wall" interactions with friends. For many students, this newfound ability is viewed as an invasion of privacy.

Before anyone with a valid e-mail address was permitted to use Facebook, various student groups on the site created "petitions," which they sent to Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, detailing their profound wish to prevent nonstudents from being able to join the site.

For instance, the creator of the Facebook group "Don't Let My Parents onto Facebook!!" sent an e-mail to Zuckerberg before the change to general admission, detailing the reasons why parents shouldn't be allowed on the site.

The description for the group says, "Facebook is planning to announce that it will soon make the site open to ANYONE with a valid e-mail address. This means that your mom and dad, grandmas, almost everyone could possibly see your profiles. Now I am sure the privacy settings will go through the roof when this happens, but that is not the point. Facebook is a site where high school and college kids can be on their own and not worry about their parents or anyone else judging them. Let's keep it that way."

Luckily for the children of Facebook users, however, their parents can look at their photos and private information only if they are "friends" on Facebook. Parents may request online friendship with their children, but those who receive these requests don't necessarily have to accept them.

"My mom tried to 'friend' me but I denied her request," said Russell Taylor, a William and Mary sophomore. "I don't want my mom commenting on my pictures. That would be weird."

This requirement that users "friend" each other in order to view each other's information addresses safety issues that have plagued other sites, because users must confirm that the connection with anyone who requests their "Facebook friendship."

If students don't want to reject their parents' Facebook requests, however, there are other slightly less offensive options that they can choose to protect their privacy.

For instance, Facebook offers users the ability to restrict who sees what on their profiles -- so if someone doesn't want his parents snooping around his pictures, he can limit access to them.

Many students are particularly unsettled by their parents' use of the social networking site because they don't know why their parents would want to use it, other than to spy on or embarrass them.

"I think parents are bored," Taylor said. "My mom doesn't really use it, but the moms who do use it a lot are kind of creepy. They should trust their kids more."

The potential for embarrassment is also a major factor in students' dislike of befriending their parents on Facebook. Once friends, parents can "post" anything on their children's walls, giving rise to potentially embarrassing situations for students who don't want their college friends to be exposed to their "home life."

"My family always posts embarrassing things on my wall," said Gaines. "I don't know if they do it on purpose or if they really want to know if I need new socks or whatever."

However, parents object to their children's protests that Facebook is only for students.

"Facebook is open to everyone," said Nancy Wright, the parent of two college-aged Facebook users, "and parents are people too. We have a right to use Facebook to socialize and maybe even befriend our kids!"

Some students see no problem with being Facebook "friends" with their parents, and even use the social networking site as a way to communicate with them.

"My mother, my father and all of my aunts and uncles use Facebook, as do a few of my old teachers," said Alyssa Lamontagne, a Columbia University sophomore. "Most of them started on Facebook about a year or two ago when they realized how useful it was for keeping track of family and old friends. I'm friends with all of them and while a few of my peers like to put their families on limited profile [a privacy option used to restrict access to certain aspects of one's profile] or refuse to friend them, I think that my parents and extended family would protest if they couldn't see all of my pictures. If pictures are posted of me that I don't want them to see, I simply de-tag and thus problem solved."

Indeed, in response to the growing number of parents, teachers and employers on Facebook, many students simply make their profiles adult-friendly, making sure that no embarrassing photos or interactions take place for everyone on Facebook to see.

"People shouldn't be putting anything inappropriate on Facebook anyway," Taylor said. Why would you want what you're doing in public? It'll come back to haunt you in some way or another."

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