Birthdays, Parenting, & Social Networking

Recently there was yet another great reminder that today’s teens are growing up in a world vastly different from the one their parents grew up in.

I am not referring to global warming, iphones, Justin Bieber, or Nintendo DS.

What I am referring to is one of the more precious traditions in most families – the birthday party.

When I was growing up birthday parties were that day of the year that was all about you. There were presents, cards (hopefully with money enclosed), and phone calls from relatives. In some families the birthday person got their favourite meal cooked, or got to pick a restaurant for the family to eat at for a birthday meal.

And of course there was the birthday party.

Most kids I knew didn’t get to have a party every year. It was either every second or third year, or at predetermined ages like 10, 13, 16, 18 etc. Sometimes there were even surprise birthday parties (like my 18th).

However I can’t remember anyone in my generation having a birthday party with over 200,000 people getting and accepting an invitation to the party (We wouldn’t have known how to contact 2000 people, never mind 200,000).

The Viral Invitation

A young NSW girl recently found a 16th birthday experience that I am sure she will never forget, when over 200,000 people accepted an invitation to her birthday party.

The 15 year old posted an invitation to her upcoming 16th birthday celebration on her Facebook page. Apparently she didn’t have enough time to invite everyone she wanted to so she asked for people, if they knew someone who might like to go, to invite them on her behalf.

She apparently also felt a bit disappointed about a previous party she hosted where only 2 guests showed up. So in order to avoid a similar social disaster she announced on her invite that the event was going to be “open house.” To her credit she did put a disclaimer on the open house status that things could not “get out of hand.”

The event invitation spread rapidly on the internet to thousands and so she shut it down.

However, shortly after doing so the event invitation was recreated by an impostor and it was then that the event went viral reaching the hundreds of thousands. This event had the girl’s home address and other details.

Eventually the police were notified, the party was cancelled, and a public announcement made stating that the only thing anyone would find on the advertised date at the young girl’s address would be a couple of police cars.

It’s a Different World.

The teenage girl’s father was reported to have said his daughter was “an innocent victim” who intended to invite just “a few friends” but did not know how to use the privacy settings on Facebook correctly.

The young, now much wiser, 16 year old was reported in the press as saying “I’m never doing this again.”

The lesson to be learned by all is that teenagers today might be digital natives, but they aren’t digitally wise, or capable of always thinking though the consequences of their actions.

Just as parents make a point of talking to their young teenagers about behaving wisely when it comes to drinking, sexuality, and other behaviours when socialising, this event reinforces the need for parents, and other adults, to be just as intentional about educating their kids to be wise digital citizens.

Parents need to be aware of their teens in their online activities. It is not enough to claim that social networking is the younger generation’s domain. Nor is it an adequate response to ban access to what is an increasingly significant social context for a large proportion of the population.

Educating, modeling, and encouraging responsible behaviour is what parents seek to do for their children.  These aspects of parenting are still required in the online environment also.

What To Do

One of the challenges for parents, particularly those that are not familiar with social networking, is trying to educate their children on things they themselves don’t understand. So what do you do?

First – get educated.

Here are a few locations to get you started;

Facebook Help Page– This page is part of the Facebook help section and is a good place to start.

10 Things Every User Should Know (Mashable) – A good article that highlights the 10 key things Facebook users should be aware of with regards to privacy.

Cybersmart – Is a general guide to online safety with helpful information and advice for people of all ages.

Net Family News – Anne Collier is one of the most knowledgeable and sensible experts about online safety in the family.

Second – talk to your kids.

Between the extremes of banning computer use or installing spy-ware and gross indifference to what your kids are doing online, lives the middle ground of honest communication.

Discuss with your kids the issues of internet safety, being wise online, what is appropriate behaviour, and what to do when something happens they feel uncomfortable about.  Part of these conversations should include boundaries, time allowed, and of course how to use privacy settings.

A little bit of effort now could prevent a big hassle later (i.e. 200,000 party guests).

Image by Will Clayton

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