When on Facebook, Nan Rehfield—a network “friend” to her two teen boys—has learned to play by her sons’ rules for acceptable (read non-embarrassing) familial interaction.
“I’ve been told by my 15-year-old not to ‘like’ his posts because that’s pathetic,” says 40-something Rehfield. “The 18-year-old hides his posts from me.”
Rehfield’s friends-with-family experience links to a widespread cultural phenomenon. It seems like such a no-brainer that embracing family (and any related baggage) online could be socially awkward. Yet the majority of adult Internet users—71 percent, according to the Pew Research Center—happily hop online with their offspring or parents.
Underage kids aren’t the only ones getting embarrassed by Mom and Dad—the blush spreads to children of all ages. A friend of mine recently told me that her Facebook friendship with her 70-something mom has been a bit of a struggle.
“Early on, I had to say, ‘Mom, I’m a single woman in her late 30s! I cannot have my mother posting greeting cards on my wall every day! It’s so dorky.”
Also, my friend reminded me that social media goes both ways.
“Facebook gave me a window into my newly retired mom’s daily life,” she says. “I used to feel stressed or guilty, like, ‘Oh my God, my mom is playing FarmVille and friending strangers all day long.’ But then I realized she’s an adult and she should do whatever makes her happy.”
Since family-friending can often feel too close for comfort, why do we, in these reportedly growing numbers, fail to resist the “friend request”?
“I think it’s because these are the people who actually know us best, who’ve seen us naked, drunk, sick on the toilet, giving birth, and that scares us,” says Baltimore-based author and psychoanalyst Mikita Brottman. “So we try to regain control of our lives through Facebook, where many of the images we show each other, as everybody knows, are curated illusions, masquerades of the way we really live. When the illusion of perfection is broken, and too much family truth is revealed, we don’t like that.”
Sarah Reback, a 26-year-old graduate of Loyola University Maryland, has been friends with her mother on Facebook for about eight years, a decision whose timing could have been better.
“It was probably a mistake to friend her going into freshman year of college,” says Reback with a laugh. “She’s seen some pictures that I definitely didn’t want her to see.”
In the beginning, Reback says, she’d field complaints from her mom about the clothing she wore on a typical Friday night, all of which was fed to her mother weekend to weekend via Facebook.
“I remember [one] Friday night, what I was wearing was not appropriate,” she says, referring to a brown mini-dress, loose up top, tight down below. “We were coming back from the bar, and [my mom] called me and said, ‘I have something to discuss with you about that dress,’” she recalls. The ultimate fashion problem in Mama Reback’s eyes? Brown isn’t her daughter’s best color.
“As the years go on, it’s not as bad now,” the younger Reback says. “She just writes completely embarrassing things on my wall: ‘I love you so much. You’re the light in my eye.’”
Full disclosure: This reporter is also age 26—and I decided a long time ago not to friend my opinionated Italian mother. We discussed it and she understood. (Thank goodness, my dad let his account dry up.)
Most people who do choose to connect with their parents online start young. Numbers Facebook crunched in 2012 show a consistent pattern: Starting at age 13, around 65 percent of offspring initiate friendship requests with Mom and Dad.
By our early- to mid-20s, our tendency for doing so drops: Only about 40 percent of Millennials make friends with their parents on the social network. But as we get older, more of us are likely to reach out to our parents online.
“This overall trend follows the rough arc of children seeking distance from their parents as they prepare to leave the nest, and then gradually gravitating back as they accomplish their own milestones in life,” wrote Facebook in a blog three years ago, which seems to confirm Brottman’s theory in a sense. Maybe we just want Mom and Dad to see us at our best—to make them proud in a public forum. We want them to be thinking the cheesy compliments they aren’t allowed to post.
“I think we all use Facebook to feel a bit more connected and have a couple of laughs,” says 22-year-old Jenn Ruckel, who is friends with both her mom and her dad on Facebook. As a reporter and radio producer in Nome, Alaska, Ruckel says being friends on Facebook closes some of the emotional distance of being so far apart geographically.
“It’s really touching when my mom or dad will share something I wrote or produced for work and say how they enjoyed it and want their friends to listen. … It’s like the adult equivalent of hanging my report card on the fridge.”
Of course, social media also allows aging folks to feel connected to their loved ones—and the world.
“As adults get older, their networks get smaller,” says consumer-tech expert (and former Baltimore guy) Mario Armstrong, a contributor on NBC’s Today show. “Parents’ ability to connect and socialize becomes more limiting—and that shouldn’t have to be the case because there are all these tools that can connect people.”
So why not bask in the glow of sending passive warm fuzzies to your parents (and maybe even grandparents) if you’re lucky enough to still have them? Just remember it doesn’t replace the responsibility of occasionally picking up the phone to call your mother.