Friend management 101

“True happiness consists not in the multitude of friends, but in their worth and choice.”

Samuel Johnson wrote that line long before Facebook was created, but the point is still worth making. In many ways, Facebook has hijacked the word “friend.” Turning friendship into something that can be created with a click makes it harder for young people to think about the subtle distinction between contacts, acquaintances, classmates, companions, buddies, mentors and authority figures. In the past, these people knew some things — but not others — about you. True friendship depends on trust, which is something that develops over time, through shared experiences.

Parents know that friends who like their child as he is play an essential role in his healthy development. That’s why so much effort goes into coordinating play dates when kids are little, and supervising social occasions when they get older. These experiences give parents opportunities to talk to kids about how to recognize and nurture friendships.

Once kids go online, those conversations often end. That makes parents nervous when so many people ask to be a child’s friend on Facebook. According to a recent Kaplan survey, two thirds of teens with a Facebook account are friends with their parents. Sixteen percent of the teens accepted a parent’s friend request because it was the pre-condition for having a Facebook account.

Having a parent as a friend may be a good idea for younger teens who are just getting the hang of social networking. At some point, however, too much parental scrutiny inhibits healthy development on Facebook, just as it does in other parts of a young person’s life. The quickest way to get a grip on this idea is to imagine your own parents lurking at the margins of your adolescent life and posting comments about whatever seemed inappropriate to them.

Making friends involves risk. In real life, you may trust someone who isn’t trustworthy, but micromanaging isn’t the best way for parents to protect kids. Instead, help kids develop the self-protective skills they need by starting conversations about the following topics.

• Quantity. A British anthropologist named Jill Dunbar has theorized that, because of the size of the human brain, people can sustain active social relationships with a limited number of people. Dunbar’s number is often quoted as 150, which, interestingly, corresponds with the 130 friends the average user has on Facebook. Most teens, however, accept hundreds of friends (although few approach the 5,000 that Facebook sets as an upper limit). Often, young people have intuitive understandings that, once they reach a certain tipping point, what happens on Facebook is actually a performance in front of an audience filled with acquaintances. Your child is creating what marketing people call a “brand.”

• Selectivity. It might seem that the best way to keep Facebook meaningful would be to limit the number of friends a child has. That’s trickier than it seems. Research indicates that declining a friend request can lead to hurt feelings. Talk to your child about how he decides who makes the cut as a Facebook friend.

• Boundaries. For users between the ages of 13 and 17, Facebook automatically sets conservative privacy settings so that much of what the users post won’t appear on their public profiles. That doesn’t mean it won’t leak into the wider world. Whatever your child posts shows up on the walls of friends — where people your child doesn’t even know can see it.

Fortunately, Facebook is developing a robust set of privacy tools. Many of the most interesting tools are in the “Customize Settings” section. Here, you and your child can fine-tune decisions not only about what information people can see on your child’s page, but also on what personal information you’ll allow on pages of friends. Suggest that your child disable the “Checking into Places” feature, which allows other people to post information about where they and your child are at any given moment.

Another feature allows users to make sub-groups of friends by going to “Create Lists” in the “Edit Friends” section. Then, you can decide whether a specific list should or shouldn’t see profile information, posts, or photos. To do this, find the “Customize” option in the categories under “Privacy Settings.” Clicking on this button will open a menu that includes “Make this Open To.” In that section, you can select “Specific People.” Just drop the “Friend List” into that slot.

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Many parents want to monitor everything that happens on Facebook, but for older teens, that’s as counter-productive as insisting that you need to personally chaperone every party or outing with friends. Finding the kinds of friends that Johnson wrote about is something every child must do for himself. You can coach from the sidelines, offering plenty of advice and encouragement, but ultimately, you have to trust that your child will sort through the multitudes to find a few friends worthy of the name.

Carolyn Jabs, MA, has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. Other Growing Up Online columns appear on her website, www.growing-up-online.com.

@ Copyright, 2011, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.

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