Richard G. Jones, Jr.
Scholar, Educator, Author

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How Do Different Generations Use Facebook?:

May 14, 2013

Intergenerational Communication and Social Media

Note: This is the third article in a week-long special series about "Social Media and Communication."

One of my graduate students recently completed her thesis project on how parents and their young adult children communicate on Facebook. The project was both timely and relevant given the rapid change in age demographics taking place on social media sites, Facebook in particular.

The following quote from a Time Magazine article served as the inspiration for the project: "There's no buzz kill quite like getting a friend request on Facebook from [your parents].” Basically, we wanted to interview parents and their young adult (18-22 years old) children to see how they communicate on Facebook.

Intergenerational Communication

Intergenerational communication, which is communication between people of different age groups, is a growing subfield of communication studies. For the first time since industrialization began, it is common to have three generations of people (and sometimes four) working side by side in an organizational setting. While this is a new development, the family unit has always been a primary place for intergenerational communication, and the parent-child relationship is probably the most studied intergenerational relationship.

Changing Demographics on Facebook

More generations are now using Facebook, which has been referred to as the "graying of Facebook." A few years ago, it was noted that sixteen-and-a-half million adults ages 55 and older engage in social networking, and that number is sure to be larger now. In fact, it has been stated the fastest-growing Facebook user group is women fifty-five and older, which is up more than 175 percent since fall 2008. The number of men, in that same age group, using Facebook has increased 138%.

Why Parents Join Facebook

While parents likely have multiple reasons for joining Facebook, some researchers have suggested that joining social networking sites (SNSs) is a good way for parents to stay connected, and even spy on their children. Parents may use Facebook as part of their parental monitoring, which would be a part of a helicopter parent's repertoire of monitoring strategies.

From a less sinister viewpoint, we can see that parents can discover information they may not otherwise have known about their children, and use it to spark discussions, either in person or through social media. Parents can also use Facebook to keep in contact with their children who have gone away for work or school.

The Effects of Intergenerational Communication on Facebook

I'm sure we've all heard or read about funny interactions between parents and their kids on Facebook. Although they are at times horrifying for the kids, the posts on sites like http://myparentsjoinedfacebook.com/ and others, and the stories told on those sites aren't very different from what parents and kids conveyed during their interviews with my graduate student.

For example, Molly, a 19 year old college student wasn't too excited about being friends with her mom on Facebook. And, after she accepted her mom's friend request, she stated: "my mom started blowing up my Facebook." Basically, Molly's mom was continually writing on Molly's wall, commenting on statuses, and "liking" her pictures. Molly eventually de-friended her mother, stating: "I don't see a point of parents getting on Facebook just to creep on their kids.”

While Molly's initial interactions with her mom on Facebook were negative, another daughter had a more positive experience. Callie believes that Facebook is a prime place to see her mother's true personality. Callie states: "It lets me see her personality more...I can see how she interacts with her friends, something I wouldn't necessarily see in person." In this sense, Facebook can help forge a stronger parent child bond.

There were many other interesting findings that came out of this study, but I will summarize a few below:

  • Although most of the young adults were not initially excited about being friends with a parent on Facebook, they eventually saw the benefits of it, especially around the age of 21 or 22.
  • Parents learned how to "read" their child's Facebook page and when to post and when to leave some distance, eventually getting better at balancing the tension between autonomy and connection.
  • Photo sharing was listed as a key benefit of Facebook for both parents and their children. But many of the young adults interviewed are selective about what photos they post because their parents are on Facebook or they use privacy settings to limit what their parents can see.
  • Facebook helps the parent and child experiment with boundary management which is a key part of this developmental period. The lessons learned through boundary management on Facebook can translate into offline life as well.

Other References:

Brandtzaeg, P.B., Luders, M., & Havard Skjetne, J. (2010). Too many facebook "friends”? Content sharing and socialability versus the need for privacy in social network sites. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 26(11-12), 1006 – 1030.

Jackson, J. (2011). The graying of Facebook: Emerging adults and their parents as Facebook friends. Master's Thesis, Eastern Illinois University.