Eilis O'Hanlon: Parents and teenagers inhabit different worlds and never the twain should meet
Family life is stressful enough already without choosing to 'friend' your own children, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
WONDERING why that woman at the coffee shop suddenly glares daggers every time your paths cross? Maybe it's because you didn't spot the request to befriend her on Facebook which arrived a few weeks ago and now she's feeling snubbed.
As for that man who no longer returns your calls, maybe he sent you a funny message and you didn't show sufficient gratitude by adding a little cartoon thumbs up to show that you "Liked" it.
The internet makes people behave very oddly in this way -- taking offence as readily as they're prepared to give it -- and social networking sites are rife with the deadliest pitfalls of all. Which really ought to make it easy to answer the question: "Should you 'friend' your own children on Facebook?" Why would you willingly choose to interact with your children through this medium.
Family life is stressful enough already. Especially if your children are teenagers. How many more potential areas for conflict do you want to create anyway?
The perils don't just stop there. When my daughter joined Facebook, she persuaded her father to create a profile too so that they could 'friend' one another. Reluctantly, he agreed, then thought no more about it. Since he never logged on, or gave a second thought to what was happening on Facebook, it didn't matter. Then the emails started to arrive. Facebook had noticed that he was a friend of Miss A and wondered whether he wanted to befriend Miss B and Miss C as well. Every day, Facebook would bombard him with the names of new teenage girls that he might wish to befriend, those being the only other people on the Friends list belonging to the one user out of those hundreds of millions of accounts with whom he actually had any contact.
To say that he felt a little creeped out by the electronically-generated invitations would be an understatement -- though, he suspected, nowhere near as creeped out as the teenage girls must be to receive the same random invitations from the account of some old fella who happened to be related to one of their friends. Fortysomethings and teenagers inhabit different worlds. That's the way it should be.
Sometimes, though, it seems that parents are desperate to recapture some lost youth of their own by living vicariously through their teenage children; getting their kicks secondhand by eavesdropping in on all the parties and flirtations. It's a short step from there to hitting the nightclubs together and trying to pass yourself as your daughter's elder sister. Smoking a spliff with their friends to prove that you're cool. Copping off with her boyfriend when you've had one sherry too many. Which is demeaning for you, but, even more unforgivable, embarrassing for your children.
It reminds me of a scene in the wonderful US TV drama series Brothers And Sisters in which Sally Field starts to ask her grown up daughter, Calista Flockhart, about her sex life, and Flockhart responds by putting her hands over her ears in horror and groaning: "Ugh, kill me now."
That is the natural and healthy response to infringements into one another's territory by the different generations. All that nonsense about being Best Friends Forever with your children rather than a parental figure was just a
misguided Sixties aberration, like free love and progressive rock. Even if children think that's what they want, they don't. They want parents, whether they realise it yet or not, and you're going to have to be a parent, no matter how much easier it might be to duck the challenge.
Besides, living in one another's pockets in that way deprives them of one of the greatest pleasure any teenager can have -- which is the joy of hiding things from their elders. It's not normal to share everything. Secrets make a teenager's world go round, and it's better if they can at least think Facebook is the place to stash their private thoughts and memories rather than going to greater extremes to escape prying eyes. Trespassing on that realm is only a small step up from reading their personal diaries, or putting a hidden camera in the bedroom to make sure that they're not up to mischief.
There are exceptions, naturally. If you suspected that your child was taking drugs, or suffering from serious depression -- in worst-case scenarios, even making contact with unsuitable individuals online -- then an argument could be made for rummaging around in their world for confirmation. It would be better to just talk to them about it, rather than snooping around like a Special Branch mole, but it may, in extremis, be justifiable. In those instances, after all, you're only crossing a line to save them from themselves. But it is important to recognise that there is a line, and crossing it just so that you can find out who snogged who at the last disco is probably a sign that you need to get out more.
That's why Twitter was probably right when it called it "following" rather than 'friending'. The word "follow" has the right edge of menace. Would you follow your teenage children around in real life? If not, why is doing it online any more edifying?
Having said that, there are few things more annoying than a teenager who's happy to post intimate details of their lives on Facebook and then gets indignant about alleged invasions of their online privacy by inquisitive parents.
The only people who haven't figured that out yet are presumably the same gullible fools who believe their boyfriends when they say those intimate webcam pictures of the two of them together are for him and him alone and he would never show them to anyone else. Even if they broke up acrimoniously. As they probably will. Next thing you know, she's starring in her own video on some X-rated website.
Teenage children should be able to trust their parents to leave them alone on the internet, but good parents should also make sure their children show a matching scepticism for everyone else that they interact with out there. Which is another reason for avoiding Facebook as an adult.
If it was a neighbourhood, you wouldn't move there in a million years.