From Facebook to Safebook: Five Steps to a Smarter Cyberspace

peacock_newWalker Peacock, Psy.D.

What would you say if I told you I’ve created a teleportation device just for teens? It’s called the Transmogrifier, and it breaks your child down into trillions of atoms and then transports him or her anywhere in the world. Best of all, it’s free! It’s all the rage, and your child absolutely MUST have one. All of her friends do, and it’s not fair, and if you loved her you would…

How would you respond? What would you want to know about the Transmogrifier before you sent your daughter on her inaugural voyage? How old should she be before she can use teleportation? Once she sends herself somewhere, how long before she can come back? Can she come back at all?

Believe it or not, the Transmogrifier already exists…in a way. It can’t transport your daughter anywhere, but it can take her ideas, thoughts, pictures, and videos and instantly send them anywhere in the world. Or even better, to hundreds of destinations at once. But it’s not called the Transmogrifier. It’s called Facebook.

I’d like you to take a little trip down memory lane with me. I want you to think about the stupidest, craziest, or riskiest thing that you’ve ever done in your life (I’m willing to bet that this event took place between the ages of 12 and 22). How many people saw you do it? Most likely, only the people in the immediate vicinity. Besides these witnesses, how many people know about what you did? There may have been a few days of rumors and speculation if your act was especially juicy, but then it most likely died off.

Now I want you to imagine that you are a teenager in current times, and that you pulled your stunt this past weekend. The reality of modern times is that within 3 minutes, video of your stupidity was recorded by no fewer than six different cell phones and uploaded to each witness’ Facebook account. Within 5 minutes, your video has been viewed by a few hundred Facebook friends and (if it’s good) shared on their Facebook pages. By the next day you’re all over YouTube, your best friend won’t respond to your texts, and your boyfriend/girlfriend has broken up with you. By Monday, you’re an internet sensation and you’re getting panned on Comedy Central’s Tosh.0.[1] Oh, and if you’re a college applicant, you may have just inadvertently blown your chances at the school of your dreams.[2] Sound scary? It should.

Listen: teens today aren’t any more stupid than we were at their age. As a matter of fact, they’re exactly as stupid as we were. That’s because the prefrontal cortex, which primarily controls responsible decision-making, doesn’t fully develop until the early 20’s. Here are some more fun (scary) facts about the teenage brain:

  • Starting at around age 12, testosterone and estrogen start flooding the brain, attaching to receptors everywhere and exerting their control over excitement and sensation-seeking. What this means is that teens reach a “flash-point” of excitement more quickly, and that they will now actively seek out situations to achieve that flash-point.
  • Teenagers are significantly more likely to do something risky or controversial when they feel that they are being observed by peers.
  • When trying to understand or predict the emotional response of others, teens typically use the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the brain that regulates fear and “gut” reactions. As we get older, that process moves to the frontal lobes where we make more reasonable, less impulsive, responses.

So to summarize, the teenage brain is: flooded with hormones, addicted to adrenaline, prone to risky behavior when observed by peers, and unable to accurately predict how people will respond to their actions. You were the same way once; the difference is that today’s teenagers have the misfortune of being able to record their stupidity and broadcast it to the world.

Like it or not, Facebook is here to stay. And even if Facebook goes the way of MySpace or Friendster, there will be something else that comes along to take its place. The world is trending towards digital communication now, and social networking is slowly seeping into the professional world.[3] But just because it is inevitable doesn’t mean that parents should passively accept it into their child’s life. Just like driving, voting, or the collective works of Neil Diamond, Facebook is not something that one should enter into lightly. If my daughter were a teenager with a Facebook account, these are the five things I would want to know:

  1. Despite what you’ve read up to this point, Facebook is not a bad thing. I realize that my attitude towards Facebook so far may have come across as sensationalistic or heavy-handed. But let me clarify: I’m a fan of Facebook. I signed up myself a few years ago so that I could learn more about this thing that had taken over my teen clients’ minds. What started out as professional curiosity ended up being a great way to re-connect with old friends from high school and college. But beyond the benefits of connection, Facebook can be a way for your kids to learn the rules of digital communication. They can learn how to convey (and read) emotion through the written word without having to rely on “LOL” and smiley faces. They can learn to plan what they want to say instead of responding impulsively, since the internet removes the “awkward silence.” And they can practice the art of entering into, and exiting, conversations gracefully.
  1. If you don’t have a Facebook account, get one. Ideally, this will allow you to openly observe your child’s activity and can lead to some good conversations about what is and isn’t safe to post. I say ideally, because you can only see what your son is doing if he allows you to see it. If he accepts your friend request, then you’ll be privy to anything he posts including status updates, pictures, and videos. You’ll also be able to see who his friends are and get a sense of with whom he is spending his time (Assuming he doesn’t block your access, but more on that later).

It’s quite possible that your child won’t accept your friend request, or that he’ll accept it but limit what you can see on his page. No matter. There are still plenty of benefits to having your own Facebook account. Most importantly, you can get familiar with it. Learn how to use it. Play with the security settings to learn how to limit who can see your personal information, your pictures, your posts, etc. Have a conversation with your kids to see how much they know about their own security. They may be surprised to find out just how accessible they are.

  1. If your child does “friend” you, tread lightly. Seriously. If you end up as Facebook friends with your son or daughter, you are dealing with a sacred yet fragile bond of trust. If you break that trust by criticizing or embarrassing, intentionally or not, you’ll be de-friended faster than you can ask yourself, “Is ‘de-friended’ even a word?”[4] Or you’ll get banished to the Siberia of Facebook: the restricted list. You’ll technically still be “friends” with your daughter, but now you’re blocked from seeing anything other than name, rank, and serial number.

You can try to force her to give you her password, or demand that she shut her account down, but all that will do is guarantee that she finds new ways to use Facebook without your knowledge. It’s easier than you think. All you need is an email address. As a matter of fact, in the time it took you to read this sentence, I created a Facebook account for my dog. So if you want to fight that fight, be my guest. Personally, I recommend the path of least resistance, which means that if you are a parent in the Holy Land of Facebook Friendship with your teen, you are to be neither seen nor heard. Some tips for a successful online friendship with your child:

    1. Pick your battles. Facebook is not the place to remind your son about chores, question his choice of profile picture, or correct his spelling. But if you must comment…
    2. Do not, under any circumstances, comment on their wall. Anything you need to communicate should only be done in person or through the messaging feature of Facebook. Messages work like email, and only your child will be able to see it. Whereas anything you post on their wall can be seen by all and can lead to major grief for your kid. Remember how embarrassed your son was when you said his new haircut was “cute” in front of his carpool friends? Well, imagine how he’ll react if you make the same comment in front of 200 of his friends.
    3. Don’t send friend requests to your kid’s friends. It can make their friends feel awkward and obligated. If they accept your request, they’ll be worried that you’ll see something they say and tell their parents. If they don’t accept, there will always be that feeling of rejection whenever you see them. It just makes it weird.
    4. There are over 500 million Facebook users out there, which means that there are literally millions of parents who torture their children on Facebook each day. Learn what not to do by visiting http://myparentsjoinedfacebook.com/.
  1. Monitoring your child’s Facebook account is not an invasion of privacy. In Facebook, there is no privacy. Many parents worry that checking up on their child’s Facebook page is like snooping in the child’s bedroom. Well, sure. If your kid’s bedroom holds 255 of her closest friends. Linda Fogg Phillips and her brother, Dr. B.J. Fogg, [5] make the argument that Facebook is less a bedroom and more a front lawn. Anything your child writes, any picture she posts, can immediately be seen by all of her friends. And depending on her security settings, it may also be visible to people she’s never met. Does that sound private to you? The front lawn is a good analogy, and a good point for discussion with your child. If she wouldn’t want it in front of her house, then she shouldn’t put it on Facebook.
  1. Talk about it. The whole point of you joining Facebook isn’t to snoop, but to educate and protect. Once you join, it won’t take long for you to see people make some really bad decisions (adults included!), whether it’s posting an inappropriate picture or a regrettable status update. Let these become teachable moments for you and your family. Talk to your kids about what they’re seeing. How would they handle that same situation if it were them?


[1] Incredibly popular television show on Comedy Central. A stand-up comic displays that week’s most popular online videos and cracks one-liners.

[2] A Kaplan survey of college admissions officers found that 80% consider an applicant’s social media presence.

[3] Linkedin, anyone?

[4] It is now.

[5] Authors of Facebook for Parents

About Copyright © 2017 The Tarnow Center. All rights reserved.