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Families finding mixed feelings about Facebook

Sun., July 5, 2009

Site’s growing popularity among adults gives some pause about keeping up with mom

It used to be a dilemma only for college students.

But these days, as middle- and no-longer-middle-age people flock to Facebook, it’s a question for the over-40 set, too: Sure, she’s your mother. But is she your “friend”?

For 47-year-old Paul Yost, who’s in the middle of three generations on the social networking site, the answer is unequivocally yes. His teenage daughters were the first in the family to join, and Yost followed. Then, “I got my mom on it, and her boyfriend, a number of people I graduated from high school with,” he said.

Earlene Moore – who goes by Earl – encouraged her 37-year-old son to try it out. A 64-year-old respiratory therapist at Deaconess Medical Center, Moore is an enthusiastic supporter of the site as a way to keep in touch with her sisters and other family.

“I love Facebook. I can keep in touch with everybody,” said Moore. “I’m a friend of my son’s, and now I can see all of his friends who I haven’t seen for years.”

Once a hip online hangout restricted to college students, Facebook is developing a family vibe. In the last two years, the rate of new users older than 35 has exploded, growing at more than 10 times the rate among teenagers. There was a time when young people worried about being “friended” by their parents – concerned about those photos with the beer bong, perhaps, or foul language showing up in a comment thread. Now they might plausibly anticipate a friend request from Grandma.

In response to this, Facebook has created ways for users to quarantine certain friends – limiting access to their information for some friends, and offering the creation of family groups. Fred Stutzman, a doctoral student and teaching fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies social technologies, says the new family pages are a way for Facebook to navigate the waters when family become friends.

“The problem that Facebook faces is simple – users are often reluctant to connect across generations,” he wrote in a recent blog post. “A child may not want to grant a parent access to their everyday goings on, but it is quite likely that the child will want to see pictures from family events, read notes about family members or find out about events from relatives.”

A small group on Facebook has been formed to help young people hide “incriminating” information from their parents or friends’ parents. Using privacy settings, parents can be placed on a list that blocks “all photos of inebriation and nudity,” incriminating stories posted by friends, or excessive swearing, the page says.

“Now you can lump all Parents or Friends’ Parents into one category, (just like they categorized and judged all your friends in high school),” the page says.

Not all young people are trying to hide things from their parents. Danika Heatherly, a 21-year-old senior-to-be at Whitworth University, is friends on Facebook with both her mother and her grandmother – as are some of her roommates. Heather, who is from Visalia, Calif., said that both her mom and grandmother would prefer using the “traditional telephone” to keep in touch, but they appreciate Facebook as a tool.

“I don’t think my mom or grandma use Facebook too much, other than keeping in touch with me and my sister,” she said.

Heatherly thinks it’s “kind of neat” that her mom and grandma can keep in touch with her through the site. When one of Heatherly’s friends recently posted some “inappropriate language” on her wall, her mom asked her to delete that friend – and she did.

Eliza Piston, a student at Eastern Washington University, said both of her parents are on the site, and she assumes that some parents are joining Facebook primarily to “keep track of their children.” The issue of crude language comes up between her and her mother, too, though she deals with it differently than Heatherly.

“The major tension is now that my mom can see my Facebook stuff, she gets on my case for being crude or using swear words – ‘Maybe you should remove that, etc.,’ ” Piston wrote in an e-mail interview. “I usually just ignore her.”

Deborah Simon has been on the other side of that relationship. Her daughters, 18 and 25, haven’t always appreciated her motherly comments on their Facebook pages, she said. Her younger daughter even removed her as a friend once – though she restored her later.

“Both of them are very sensitive to my comments,” said Simon, a 43-year-old who uses the site primarily to stay in touch with friends around the country. “It becomes a very delicate situation, knowing when you put something on there everyone can see it.”

For older parents and children, there’s a lot less awkwardness. Earl Moore and her son, Riley Moore, both say they like the site for finding old friends and keeping in touch across long distances.

Riley Moore, a teacher at North Central High School, has been on Facebook for a few months, after friends and his mom encouraged him to do it. He says he enjoys looking up old high school friends, and especially seeing pictures of their kids.

“It’s not like I have an addiction to Facebook – at least I tell myself that,” he said. “I’m more like, if I’m sitting somewhere with nothing to do … .”

And as for being friends with Mom?

“At this age, I think your parents know who you are and you know who they are,” he said.

Of course, despite all the older adults rushing to join Facebook, they remain a minority on the site. About 19 percent of the site’s 42 million users are age 35 or older.

Plenty of people agree with Spokane’s Keith Milligan – a 54-year-old South Hill man who joined the site and found it not to his liking.

“There’s only so much face time I want to spend with my computer,” he said.

He prefers old-fashioned forms of social networking – having dinner, talking face to face. Web interaction seems shallow and artificial to him.

“The whole Facebook, MySpace, social networking Web sites are, to me, detracting from being more social,” he said. “It’s a pretend way to interact.”

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