My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Facebook & helicopter parenting

I recently received an email from a teen that I speak with that piqued my interest. I thought I’d share it with you:

My friend (17 yo girl) isn’t allowed on Facebook because she has helicopter parents.  She has one anyway under a pseudonym. She is also battling depression and has been going through many therapists. When I saw her a few days ago, she excitedly told me about how great her new therapist was. Her therapist lets her go on Facebook during the sessions.  While she uses Facebook, the therapist watches her use the site.  They have discussions around her photos and her friend’s status updates.  Apparently this is how the majority of her therapy sessions begin. This friend is prone to exaggeration, but the way she told the story passed my personal bullshit filter.

I regularly hear parents talk about how they want to keep their kids off of Facebook for any number of reasons. It kills me to hear this because they don’t understand that their pushing their kids to choose between social status and parental obedience. I don’t know whether or not this story is true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve watched too many teens be pushed into a corner by over-protective parents who think that they’re doing the right thing for their kids. But there’s nothing like social ostracization to increase depression. And I’ve heard too many stories from teens’ therapists about how parents are often a huge part of the problem.

If you’re a parent, please think twice before you get all control-freak on your teen kids. They need space to engage with friends in a healthy manner. And regardless of how you grew up, that means the Internet today. Exclusion isn’t a solution.

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18 comments to Facebook & helicopter parenting

  • Akankshu Dhawan

    I dont think that parents being strict about online social networking translates to parents being against their kids socializing. The lack of security and privacy on internet and recent cases of data leaks (images etc) has put a lot of parents in this situation where its a part of their duty I believe to advise teens to be careful about internet and either avoid some of these social networks or be very careful of what you share. But again in an environment so unregulated as the internet its difficult to prevent fake identities and even the best efforts by parents can sometimes lead to uncomfortable situations. But I think the best they can do is definitely have “THE TALK” about online social networking with their kids and try.

  • Thanks so much for posting this! I’m a recovering helicopter parent myself. My kids are not yet teens, but soon. I need the reminder so thanks!

  • That is fascinating! It’s amazing that a therapist is now able to connect with a patient that way. Facebook is a good reflection- almost a record- of the kind of social interaction that happens between a person and his or her peers. A therapist can’t follow a kid to school to see how they interact with people, but they can get a glimpse of what goes on in their lives by looking at their Facebook. This would be an amazing method to research in terms of cognitive behavioral therapy.

  • So basically the therapist is talking to her about her online activities, and presumably privacy and boundaries, and navigating all that social stuff online…

    …just like good parents should?

    Sigh.

  • Todd

    I agree with Andromeda – the best part about this is that the therapist is there with her, and talking about it with her, just like a parent should. I can see why this is valuable because it helps the kid, but also helps the therapist understand what is happening in the kid’s life.

  • Uncharted territory = fear, right? A few years ago during an interview I had with you in Milwaukee you summarized a study in the UK looking at how the radius children have been allowed to travel from home has gone from multiple kilometers to mere meters over the past three generations. Too bad that parents, when faced with uncharted territory, typically hold tighter to old beliefs and fears rather than delving deeply into the new realm, which (typically, not always) ends up not being as scary as imagined.

  • “They need space to engage with friends in a healthy manner”

    What happened to that concept? we were raised like this but it seems face-book changed all that.

  • As the child of helicopters who forbade instant messenger, Facebook, MySpace, and non-school-affiliated email accounts, I can attest to the unwillingness of parents to recognize online social networks as extensions of real-life social space. Computer mediated communications now yield an incredible amount of the social capital that determines peer interactions–even text messaging (which I went without until my last year of high school). My parents thought (and continue to think) that they were, as danah says, allowing me to “engage with friends in a healthy manner.” They simply did not understand the extent to which CMCs constitute an environment of interaction with the same relative value of movie theaters, parties, and football games.

  • It is a bit of a joke in our family that I use FB to ‘stalk’ my young adult children (19 -22). And my youngest and I had a great exchange the other month. He posted something (as a joke) that I found a bit offensive … so I left a little short comment along the lines of … “I do not think this appropriate …” (yes that is the ‘mother tone’ you hear). It is what happened next that really impressed me and gave me a real AHA moment.

    He ‘inboxed’ me (so it was private) .. and said this was his space and I should really respect that. He said he found my comment on his comment ‘inappropriate’ not only for the tone but also for the fact that I had posted it on his site (ie all his friends could see it). He then went on to say (along the lines of ..) that while he likes me being his friend on FB and enjoys our on-line interactions .. if I can not respect / accept his space, opinions and jokes (and if I DO have a problem – then deal with it privately) .. – then he suggested either A) I ‘unfriend him’ (so you don’t have t see it Mum!) .. or B) if I do it again he will block me (LOL).

    What impressed me the most .. was his choice of reply (ie private .. not ‘ridiculing me in public) and the incredibly respectful but honest and assertive way he (1) put his case forward … (2) said what he wanted from me … (3) and then gave me an alterative option .. and (4) finished off with a final possible consequence.

    I sat back, had a laugh, went to his FB page and removed my comment. I then sent him a reply email thanking him for the way he handled this & acknowledged all of his points .. and thought.. I am so proud of my son. 

    I am sharing this story here because it is an example of the way on line interactions with our (adult) children can actually enhance our relationship .. (I think) .. But I also do acknowledge it is different with younger children and I guess parents do have more of stronger role in that situation.

  • Colleen

    Wow. I guess I wonder if the therapist is in any way trying to help the parents & teen work this out. Parents are probably paying for the therapy and would benefit from understanding their kid. A little family work might be a good thing. I also had difficulty with the ‘boundary’ being crossed here. I would think most therapists would be able to do therapy without actually allowing and watching real time net interaction. If a teen client reports my parents won’t let me…”whatever”, is it appropriate for the therapist to aid in that activity or better to help the teen client work with the parents on any given issue? I have difficulty with the issue raised and am surprised by the many comments supporting the therapist’s behavior.

  • I have learned the hard way that you have to let your kids breathe. It is easy to try to look into and spy on everything they are doing, but it will hard and possibly destroy your relationship with them.

  • Re: Kathleenz and her son

    So he’s OK with comments as long as they don’t disagree with his posts? Wouldn’t it have been better for him to engage in a discussion about what was inappropriate about the comment? He might have learned something from you. Perhaps at 19 he does not know all the repercussions of offensive statements.

  • Peter

    I am so pleased to find I am not alone in my relentless repetition of this same refrain to teachers, parents, and elected officials in my school district, who take me to task for not blocking FB on our network and on laptops that we send home with students. I did a small, and probably amateurish, survey of students in the district. I think the results indicate that for the most part the kids are using social networks responsibly, and that sometimes they retreat into the online world when they find themselves terribly bored by the adult at the front of the classroom!

  • vickivanv

    The helicopter parent phenomenon is so appallingly unhealthy in so many ways. Having almost no chance for unsupervised *anything* from childhood on through adolescence is not the way humans were meant to develop, and that’s just got to have some kind of broad social impact over time. I think restricting kids’ access to electronic communication and social networks is especially unwise–that’s the way people communicate and work now and they need to know how to do it. Preventing them from participating is almost as damaging in some ways as fitting a toddler with a muzzle.

  • Tara

    So the therapist is directly going against the parents’ desires for the way they want to raise their child? And you’re all okay with this? Way to undermine parental authority, therapist. I’d be shopping for a new therapist who would work WITH my family, not just let my child do something I’d expressly forbidden. What if the kid was “depressed” because I wouldn’t let him drink or smoke? Would the therapist let him do that behind my back, too?

  • HeresTomWithTheWeather

    indeed, parents are often the problem. however, the phrase “isn’t allowed on Facebook because she has helicopter parents” is false no matter how you interpret it. it’s an ad-hominem attack on the parents instead of an explanation of why the parents prohibit facebook.

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