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Why I De-Friended My Daughter's Classmate on Facebook

December 26, 2011

My daughter is 11 years old and in the 5th grade at a progressive, private school in Los Angeles. Lately, I’ve been astounded to see how many of her classmates are on Facebook.

My first encounter with kids on Facebook happened a year ago when one of the boys in my daughter’s class sent me a friend request. He was 9 years old. I’m Facebook friends with one of his dads, so I accepted the request, not even remembering that Facebook has a rule that a person has to be at least 13 years old to use the social media network. A few months later, a friend of mine posted something very personal and upsetting about issues her son was dealing with. I commented on her post. Uncomfortable with a 9 year-old seeing this, I called his dad and explained that I would be de-friending his son. I hoped this was a gentle form of rejection. I later found out this classmate of my daughter’s was bragging to her and other kids at school that he was on my Facebook page. I had unknowingly embarrassed my daughter.

Needless to say, my daughter doesn’t have a Facebook page. But, a bunch of her classmates do and their parents think it’s really cool. These affluent, urban hipster moms and dads want their kids to be setting trends, not trailing behind. Similar to fashion, gadgets like cellphones and social networking sites like Facebook are the epitome of cool for elementary school kids, along with iChat and Skype. The parents I know encourage their kids to friend adults, who, without wanting to hurt their feelings, accept the friend request. Whenever I’m on Facebook, I constantly see “Lisa Smith” (an adult) is now friends with “Jack S.” (a kid). I also get friend suggestions from Facebook recommending kids as friends. I ignore them.

Facebook friendships are contrived and distant much of the time. People who spend all day on Facebook complain they’re lonely. Don’t get me wrong, I love Facebook and I’m on it daily. But, whenever I see that a person has 1,000 Facebook friends, I’m suspicious. Would they recognize these people on the street? For kids, the desire to be popular can be all-consuming. Collecting instant friends on Facebook is one feel-good way to build a quick group of “friends.” With a few clicks, suddenly a kid goes from 5 friends to 75 friends. All it takes is a little help from mom or dad.

A mom I know called me recently to say that one of her son’s classmates was her Facebook friend and he was telling everyone at school about her posts—pictures of her son. Her son was being ridiculed at school and stopped allowing his mom to take any photos of him, fearing she’d post them on Facebook. I suggested she de-friend this kid after calling his mom. She is worried that the other mom will retaliate against her.

Of course, being friends with your kids or your friends’ kids on Facebook isn’t always about capturing the elusive cool factor. Sometimes my impression is that parents just want to be Facebook friends with their kids with no hidden agenda. I see teens posting pictures on their parents’ sites and I think it’s a great way to stay connected. Of course, one of the most common uses of Facebook is for parents to use it as a way to monitor their children’s Facebook postings, photos and keep tabs on who their friends are. I’ve read that to avoid parental “spying,” kids are setting up second Facebook pages just for their friends. Many of their parents are apparently unaware of these friends-only pages.

Then, there’s the “elephant in the playroom,” or the one of the real reasons for allowing a 7, 8 or 9 year-old to have a Facebook page: parents who are too busy, burnt out, overworked or exhausted to spend time and energy playing with their kids. Facebook becomes another convenient way to keep kids busy. Instead of whining, “Mom, I’m bored,” kids can chat with friends (including grown ups) on Facebook. Parental controls are used—most of the time. If the parents are technologically un-savvy, then there probably aren’t controls in place. We’re talking about a generation of kids who probably know a lot more about technology than their parents. If it’s Facebook at 8 or 9 years old, what will be happening at 14?

Is there real value for 9 year-old kids to be on Facebook? The kid I de-friended posted stuff about his pets. Maybe he spent a lot of time reading his friends’ news feeds, I’m not sure. Now, more than ever, there is value in creating independent children who can navigate tricky social situations and develop essential social skills. The assumption that Facebook will help your kid learn social skills is ridiculous. Perhaps there is an argument to be made that Facebook helps 9-year olds develop these skills sooner than they might otherwise, although I’m skeptical.

Or, maybe it’s just a way to kill time, like TV or video games. It can be addictive in the same way. Real, face-to- face interactions help young kids build social skills and navigate mean girls, bullies and other difficult situations. If anything, Facebook can be a hazard for some kids. Well publicized, tragic events involving cyber bullying underscore the need for kids to be old enough to understand what they are sending and receiving on social media. Inappropriate photos and “stranger danger” bring up an entirely more serious privacy concerns. After my de-friending incident, I have a new appreciation for Facebook’s 13 and up rule.

I like the digital age, smart technology and the zillions of gadgets out there and so do my kids. My daughter has email—she can email a list of approved friends— and they both have iPads. But, my kids will need to wait to have a Facebook page and when they do, they won’t be friending grown-ups. I’m not worried about the cool factor. They’ll be on Facebook when I think they’re ready for the responsibility, whether they think I’m being a hip mom or not. Facebook is a fun place for me to connect with friends, post photos and share moments without worrying about the rumor mill or bullying at my kids’ school the next day!

I have no interest in being Facebook friends with kids. Why do some parents think it’s acceptable to allow their 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade kids to friend grown-ups? Do they think this makes their kids trend-setting hipsters? These parents have kids who want to act like teens. Mirroring this, the parents appear to be longing to relive their own teenage years. When I see parents dressing like teens, giggling like teens at school events, talking like teens and driving like teens, it’s no wonder their kids are trying to use Facebook to grow up faster. They are parents who are trying to accelerate their kids’ march into tweendom. At the same time, they are regressing back to their teen years. This is all playing itself out on Facebook.

And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson… scandals are inevitable.

Christina Simon is the co-author of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles. She is the mom of two, ages 8 and 11, and writes the blog, Beyond the Brochure for parents applying to private schools. Her work has been published on Salon.com and numerous other sites.

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