To some teens, having parents online is out of line

More and more moms and dads — like Bob Florian, here with son Matt, 17 — are signing onto Facebook to keep up with their teenage kids. (SUSAN BIDDLE / THE WASHINGTON POST)
More and more moms and dads — like Bob Florian, here with son Matt, 17 — are signing onto Facebook to keep up with their teenage kids. (SUSAN BIDDLE / THE WASHINGTON POST)

When Matt Florian signed onto his Facebook account recently to check the status of his 400-plus friends, he had a friend request.

It was from his dad.

The high junior from Maryland didn't panic. No. He simply took a deep breath and pondered his options.

He could accept it. He could ignore it. He could accept it but limit the parts of his Facebook profile his dad could see. He pondered more. What were the social implications of "friending" your folks?

Across the country, Facebook users are contemplating similar questions when they log on to their accounts. More and more moms and dads are signing on to Facebook to keep up with their offspring. Not only are they "friending" (or attempting to friend) their sons and daughters, they're friending their sons' and daughters' friends.

Some, like Matt, take the requests in stride. He ultimately friended his dad. Others are less sanguine, voicing their dismay via online groups that decry parental intrusion and offering tips on how to screen out parents. ("Just go onto their computers and delete their accounts." "Just don't add them as a friend or any1 that is a co-worker with ur parents duh.")

Even parenting experts are getting involved, offering their own tips on proper Facebook etiquette.

"I do not know if this has happened to anybody, but this morning I log on to Facebook and I have a new friend request!" wrote 19-year-old Mike Yeamans, a sophomore at James Madison University, on one of several "No Parents on Facebook" groups that have popped up on the site. "I am excited to make a new friend so I click on the link. I could not believe what I saw. My father! This is an outrage!"

When Facebook was launched by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, it was designed as a way for college students to connect with each other.

Users created a personal page and were able to accept or send out electronic "friend" requests for people to be included in their networks. People who were "friends" were able to keep tabs on people in their network, send messages and even connect with friends of friends. It was like an exclusive private club, since it was open to only those with certain e-mail addresses.

But as Facebook's popularity soared, its founders sought to expand its audience. In 2005, it allowed high school students to sign on. But it was the 2006 decision to open it up to the general public that drew howls from its original audience -- and opened the door for the parental invasion.

In protest, several "abolish parent" groups have sprung up on the site.

Yeamans and a few of his friends started "What Happens in College Stays in College: Keep Parents Off Facebook!" in 2007. They meant it partly as a joke but were stunned when more than 500 people signed on, each with a tale of parental intrusion.

"My mom joined facebook when they first made it public and is mad i won't approve her friend request!" wrote one indignant student.

One Facebook group even started a petition -- online, of course -- to Facebook's founder, begging him to reverse his decision.

"Don't get me wrong," said Yeamans, who is a computer information systems major. "I love my parents, but there are some parts of my college experience that I want to keep to myself. I chose to go away to school so I could experience a little freedom." But he said his dad is persistent.

"I ignored him, but he keeps trying and trying to friend me," Yeamans said.

Lily Goldberg, 17, a high school junior said having parents on Facebook just seems weird.

"It's like having them walk into my room," she said.

Other high school students shared tales of parents let loose on Facebook. There was the mother who now spent more time talking to her daughter's friends than her daughter. And then there was the parent who went on a "friending frenzy" -- much to the dismay of her daughter. Asked if they'd accept a parent's plea to friend them, the majority of students recoiled.

Except for Matt.

Matt's dad, Bob Florian, swears he didn't have anything nefarious in mind when he asked to friend Matt. (He's also friends with his daughter Katie, 15, but don't tell anyone.) "I even told them it would be OK if they didn't want to friend me," he said.

But the elder Florian had a legitimate work excuse. He and his colleagues at Grassroots Enterprise, a D.C.-based community political action network, use Facebook to get their clients' messages out. For the several months before his "friend" request, he'd peppered his son and daughter with questions about how the Web site worked.

"In the invite, I said, if it's not really cool to be friends, that's OK," Bob Florian said. Now, "I'm getting poked and getting invited to join games," he said, referring to different ways in which people interact on the site. But unlike his offspring, Florian said he'd rather be out riding his bike.

Today, the fastest-growing segment of Facebook's estimated 66 million users are people ages 25 or older. More than half of the site's users are out of college.

For a generation accustomed to sharing everything online, it might seem odd that two more pairs of eyes would raise such concern. But Steve Jones, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied digital culture extensively, said there's a difference between the world and your parents.

"What they want to keep most private is not something they wish to keep from strangers, it's the things they want to keep from people that know them," he said.

For Taylor Janney, the choice to friend her mom, Karen, was not an option when she got her Facebook account a year ago. It was the only way the 15-year-old was allowed to be online.

"My mom was my first friend," she said with a laugh. "But it's cool. I'm not embarrassed by her."

Taylor's mother, a high school teacher, said she's been surprised by how much amusement she's gotten from Facebook. Early on, she made a rule that she wouldn't friend any of her students -- but to her surprise, she found that some of them wanted to friend her.

Since his initial horror, Yeamans has modified his stance when it comes to parents on Facebook.

"I've come to terms with it," he said. "They can join it, but I won't add them. It's just -- well, there are some things that I don't want them to know."