I received a new friend request on Facebook the other day, which, in and of itself, is not exactly newsworthy. However, the request was not from a freshly acquired acquaintance or forgotten childhood chum. It came from my 13-year-old son. His appearance in my inbox gave me pause.
Technically, he is officially allowed to use Facebook. We’ve had the discussions all parents and children should have before signing one’s life away to social media. He knows about boundaries, privacy and bullies. Yet, I was suddenly unsure he understood exactly what it means to join the digital masses.
After all, this isn’t Little League; this is The Show. And said masses can be mean and ugly. Besides, cat videos are readily available anywhere — no need to sludge through social media to find them.
Even if he limited his access to schoolmates and family members, he would still stumble across thick layers of ignorance, vitriol and profanity in their respective comment sections — sometimes from them directly. Even that is best-case scenario, at least they could be held accountable.
Social media’s pros, cons for kids
On one hand, I would be glad to have him online. He is a smart kid, generous with his kindness and quick with his humor. Adding his voice to the daily stream of online conversation would benefit it greatly. And despite my parental concerns, I knew friending him was a step in the right direction.
And then there are the steps we are taking backward.
For years I’ve sung the praises of social media and the connectivity it’s brought to our lives. Thanks to Facebook and the like we are now able to continue friendships years after daily interactions have ended. It allows our lives to progress unheeded, but with the knowledge that those we could never do without are not without us now. They are just in the next virtual room, walled loosely by an algorithm. But some walls are not high enough.
The past is behind us for a reason. Life moves forward and what does not flow in that direction becomes mired in the muck. Past relationships once faded fonder, more pleasant for the passing, but thanks to our collective connectivity what once was still is. It keeps pace in our timeline, waving frantically in our peripheral. Sometimes we pretend not to notice this feed of friends frozen from progress, pushing our memories into a parallel universe that too often celebrates only ignorance and the loudest among them.
Facebook has disturbed the elephant graveyard of past friendships, hooking life-support up to those softly breathing then dumping them across comment sections like a basket of racist clowns cramming into a Yugo.
Twitter and other online distortions
Twitter is no better. It is a movable mash-up of coupons and chaos, humor and hate, ranking life with a hashtag. However, the format of the social media platform is such that it doesn’t easily allow for paragraphs of argument upon argument. Besides, chances are your uncle isn’t on it. Instead, the trolls that live beneath the Twitter bridge are usually strangers, aliases and rotten eggs. Twitter isn’t sitting next to you at Thanksgiving, drunk as it may be.
This is why I fear for my son as he looks to establish his internet presence. He understands people have varying opinions, strong and passionate, and some are rude and many wrong. He just doesn’t know he’s related to some of them. The idea that I spent my youth in the company of those who would one day defend hate and ignorance does not fit the world he knows. To him, our relatives are loving, our friends smart and kind and funny.
That isn’t to say that he hasn’t faced his own hardships of friendship in life. He has seen it in real time, the gradual mutation from nice kids into bullies. My son has heard their cruelty and seen their consequence. He has walked away, confused and saddened with the decisions made by others, but he hasn’t had it constantly beeping in his pocket.
Ours is a world where words often hurt, sticks and stones be damned.
Elections bring out the worst
This political season has been the ugliest of our lifetime, and our constant attachment to social media means being constantly connected to the stresses of it. Do we try to fix it, one comment at a time? Or do we untether ourselves from it, cut our losses, and let the past take its rightful place behind us?
I have seen several people use their Facebook updates to place ultimatums upon the behavior of others, stating those supporting Donald Trump should unfriend them. And they mean it. Life is too short for the suffering of fools.
The fact is, those we disagree with we have always disagreed with, but other conversations have largely kept us from confronting it. Or perhaps, we were willing to overlook it for the greater good, finding instead common ground to stand with one another. People are not suddenly racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and homophobic. That has happened in real time. It has happened in the corner of our eye, laughing loudly in flocks and mobs, and us never minding, distracted as we were by shiny things and endless streams, the memes we build a dream on.
Some things may not be worth saving, and that includes friendships. Thank you for trying, Facebook.
Despite it all, or perhaps because of it, I accepted my son’s request. There will, undoubtedly, be uncomfortable questions and awkward moments, but also the learning from them. That’s life on the parenting platform, and that’s a connection worth sharing. Besides, who doesn’t like cat videos?
Photo: Whit Honea