Expert view

Carrie Longton

Carrie Longton founded the parenting website Mumsnet with Justine Roberts in 2000. Mumsnet has more than 4 million unique visitors each month and its discussion boards attract 35,000+ posts each day.

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Setting boundaries 

Carrie Longton Co-Founder of Mumsnet, asks how parents' technology habits can influence their children and reveals how she tackled the great Facebook debate.

“Why should I get off my iPhone – you’re always on yours?” I’m guessing that’s a familiar refrain in kitchens across the country if mine is anything to go by. As adults, we’re using technology all the time… so how do we set boundaries for our children about its safe and appropriate use?

Tech boundaries (and yes, that means for mum and dad too)

I'm currently doing some work with Drinkaware (the alcohol awareness people) and one of the reasons parents give for not being too hard line on early teenage drinking is they don’t want to lose their adult right to a nightly tipple.

I think there are some parallels with technology here. As we become increasingly addicted to our tablets/smartphones/laptops, we lose the moral high ground when it comes to trying to limit our children’s use of theirs.

Never mind that we’re not actually playing BrickBreaker on our BlackBerry all day (which is what my six-year-old once accused her father of doing!) If you’re checking your texts or emails at the table, it makes it a lot harder to challenge your teenager when they’re skimming through Tumblr over the fish fingers.

So here’s the deal. You have to set some family boundaries about when and how we use technology – and that includes you.

 

Our family internet charter… made us sit down and think as a family what we all wanted from technology.”

 

But, those boundaries for use and timing will be different for each family because of course there are no hard and fast rules (though I’m sure Mumsnetters could suggest a few).

One of the most useful things we did as a family, following a school internet safety evening, was to write a family internet charter. Drawn up by my then 12-year-old, it contained what she thought she/we could get away with/manage.

To be honest, I’m not sure we’ve stuck to everything. The computer is mostly kept in the family room, but not always; we don’t have mobiles at the dinner table (unless dad’s expecting a big call); the kids do ask if they want to go on the computer, but don’t always listen when I say no – but it opened a dialogue. It made us sit down and think as a family what we all wanted from technology. It didn’t make us all agree, but it helped us see where we didn’t.

The great Facebook debate

One huge area of contention in our family was what was referred to in our house as ‘holding the line’ on not joining Facebook until the legal age of 13.

When my eldest was 11, I thought I’d already had this conversation. I’d done some work with Facebook and was something of an internet safety champion through my work at Mumsnet, so I’d said in no uncertain terms that I didn’t want her on Facebook until she was 13. She got the perks of my job – an advance copy of ‘Sister, Missing’ and, the chance, once, to meet Gok Wan – so she needed to cope with the downsides too, which included having a mum with an inside knowledge of what was acceptable on a social network and what was not.

I was blithely boasting about her FB abstinence at a friend’s house when, on my friend’s daughter’s Facebook page, up popped my darling under-age daughter (name cleverly disguised but with pictures) advertising the fact that we were about to go on holiday. To say I reacted badly was an understatement. All I could say was “... but I bought you a dog!” I then banned her from all technology for a month and sent a message via Facebook to all her friends saying I knew who they were and would tell their parents they were on Facebook if they didn’t know already. Harsh some might call it – and she did.

Part of my reaction I’m sure was injured pride that my top parenting skills had actually counted for nothing – she’d just chosen to ignore me – but actually her privacy settings were a joke and I passionately believe that wonderful as Facebook can be, it’s not ideal for under 13s.

 

I’d said in no uncertain terms that I didn’t want my daughter on Facebook until she was 13.”

 

My daughter and I eventually made up and moved on and for her 13th birthday she got a cake in the shape of a Facebook ‘Like’ and membership of the club she’d wanted to join for so long.

So would I hold the line again? I have two younger children so this is a question as much for myself as for this article. Yes, I hope I will, but I guess I’ll have to cross that bridge when it comes. But it would also have helped if my daughter’s school had addressed it earlier. Our first session on this was year 7 – by then, 75% of the pupils in her year were already on Facebook (I know this because the school surveyed them!)

Mumsnet is full of great advice on internet safety both from other parents and from experts and our talk boards and dedicated information area is well visited, but on this subject, as on many teen issues, it also helps if the peer group your child mixes with (and their parents) are getting the same message at the same time. I would have liked my daughter’s school to have made a bigger deal about underage Facebooking with parents earlier – more parents might have ‘held the line’ and made each other’s lives (well mine at least) a lot easier then.

This isn’t about bashing Facebook. I am my daughter’s ‘friend’ on Facebook (part of the deal) and when, during one of our ‘full and frank discussions’, I cheekily suggested that if she didn’t do as she was told I would shame her by asking her FB friends to be mine, a bunch of the ones I knew well anyway ended up ‘friending’ me... which makes for entertaining updates.

Facebook is now something we still fight about occasionally (though I can’t really argue about how long she spends on there given the average time I and other people spend on Mumsnet) but we try and enjoy it together – even if she does accuse me of stalking on occasions.

Rather embarrassingly, when my daughter did join Facebook, she was appalled by my privacy settings and has been able to advise me on my social networking (note the casual use of Tumblr earlier – natch). Not something you would expect the co-founder of the biggest social network for parents to need help with, but there you go... we can always learn from our children.

Jargonbuster 

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