“I miss my friend Emily so much,” my 20-year-old son Mickey says. Emily is away at a new school.
“Would you like to write to Emily on Facebook?” I ask.
“Sure!” he says, excited.
Except that he isn’t on Facebook. When Mickey’s teacher suggested setting up an account last year, I resisted. It stirred up my ever-present fear of people taking advantage of my son’s naïveté.
But now the idea seems like a good opportunity. He doesn’t like phone calls; maybe he will find it easier to communicate in writing, even though he doesn’t particularly enjoy email. He seems to see it as a chore his teachers make him do.
I look up articles on keeping kids safe online. I’m eager for advice. But all I find are safety measures I’ve thought of already—telling him he cannot post his address, phone number, or any other personal information. A year ago there was some talk that Facebook might introduce an “under 13” service, but that hasn’t happened yet. Even if it does, it won’t replace parental supervision. It’s still up to me.
One morning while Mickey is at school, I set up a Facebook account for him. I apply the most stringent privacy settings possible. Then I hesitate. Besides Emily and other classmates, who will he friend? Family? Many of his cousins are typical teenagers, and I’ve seen some of the wildly inappropriate stuff teens tend to post. Can I depend on them to exercise good judgment in what they share with Mickey? Unlikely.
Then I think about some of the things I’ve posted myself, articles I wouldn’t want him reading. But if I’m even worrying about the stuff I post, is anyone—except Grandma, or my sister-in-law’s dog Buddy (yes, even Buddy has his own page)—entirely safe for him to friend?
When I first suggested Facebook he seemed enthusiastic. But when I say that I have actually set up his page and want to show it to him, he looks nervous.
“Maybe later,” he says.
Is this his usual resistance to anything new? Or something else?
“You can look at all your friend’s pictures,” I coax. He loves poring over cartons of family photos. He particularly enjoys what he calls “the married pictures”—my wedding album. I get it: pictures are safe. Predictable. The images never change.
He shrugs me off. “Not now. I’m a little busy.”
Briefly I consider sending out a few friend requests on his behalf, thinking to lure him in that way. But what would be the point? Then it would just become one more thing I do for him. It has to come from him because he wants it. Otherwise it has no meaning.
I know how much he wants to be social. Mickey’s never shy about approaching people; it’s that once he gets there, he doesn’t know what to say. He’s been verbal for years, but I still often need to stand alongside like an interpreter, explaining or prompting him. He struggles to understand social nuances. He enjoys humor, but doesn’t seem to recognize sarcasm. I wonder if it would be easier for him to interact online, where he doesn’t have to worry if he is standing too close, or speaking too loudly. The downside, of course, is that if you strip away all the visual cues imbedded in body language, it’s even easier to misinterpret what people are saying.
Facebook can be a minefield even for typical teens. Mickey is so literal; will he understand that sometimes a “friend” on Facebook isn’t really a friend? If he sees photos of his friends having fun without him, will he feel left out? What if he gets de-friended? I know how hurtful it feels when it happens to me—and I’m a grown-up with emotional filters firmly in place.
As a journalist, I appreciate being able to crowd-source questions on Facebook, and read and share articles. (And okay, yes, I enjoy all those cat videos too.) That’s my Facebook. But I envision Mickey’s Facebook as something entirely different: a cyber mall, a place to hang out with some buddies.
Since many of his friends have graduated and gone on to postsecondary school programs, Mickey has seemed very alone to me. He’s watching far too many videos on YouTube. He’s taken to referring to movie characters as his “friends.”
Which kills me.
Is he as lonely as I fear?
I desperately want him to have friends. But am I projecting my own worry about his loneliness?
And if I am, is setting up a Facebook account in his name really for him?
Or for me?