Virtual visitation rights: Facebook and noncustodial parents
First person: Children and parents of divorce deal with whether to "friend" or not.
The New York Times
Nearly a year ago, my 70-year-old father sent me a friend request on Facebook. Though I publish my every movement — from the mundane to the salacious — on the site, and there might be things about my life that I wasn't sure I wanted to share with him, I seriously considered accepting his request. If only to make up for lost time or give him basic biographical information so our interactions wouldn't always feel like an awkward first date.
My father had left Brooklyn for Florida when I was 8. Subsequently I saw him only once a year. How different, I wondered, would our relationship have been had Facebook been around when I was a girl.
Had we each had a profile, my father wouldn't have had to ask who my friends were or which subjects I favored in school. He would have known all these tidbits via status updates, as though we were still under the same roof. He wouldn't have had to ask me over the phone in conversations that were awkward when I was young and grew increasingly tense as I became older.
And our relationship was not unique, according to others in the same situation.
"There is something deadly about the direct address," said Brian Collins, 50, a divorced father of two and the husband of a friend. " 'So, child, tell me what's going on inside of you.' Kids just shut down. They don't have any way of engaging a question like that," Collins said.
He said he rarely speaks on the phone with his two daughters, Ella, 16, and Grace, 13, who live in New Hampshire. He has been divorced from their mother for six years. Collins, an English teacher, now lives in Upper Manhattan with his wife and stepdaughter. He has discovered that digital and social-networking media are much more effective in maintaining a sense of normalcy when he is separated geographically from his children.
Collins compared the information gleaned from Facebook with what is overheard when driving children around in the car with their friends. "You become invisible and they have these conversations around you which they would never have if you were sitting and looking at them. Some of it is kind of hairy. Facebook is a little bit like that."
In a recent interview, Dr. Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, who specializes in treating adolescents, said he worried about how parents like Collins would handle the kind of information that can be gleaned from the updates and pictures teenagers tend to post on Facebook. They might overreact to their children's online hyperbole, which is part of the reason he is a bit skeptical of the Internet's role in parent-child relationships. "On Facebook, you know tons of things about people that are kind of bizarre," he said.
When I first spoke with Collins about this, he said he thought he was two weeks away from being defriended by his younger daughter, Grace.
Indeed, a few weeks later he said: "Well, it's happened. She defriended me last week." He had commented via private message on her membership in a group with a vulgarity in its name. Collins said he wasn't upset by his daughter's decision to join but thought he'd be remiss as a parent if he didn't say something to her.
Grace told a different story. She reported defriending her father over something fuzzier — literally. "He always posts animals on my Facebook wall," she said with a mild look of irritation. "It was weird. I'm 13 and I don't like furry animals anymore."
Though many fathers have trouble thinking of their daughters as more adult than the little girls they remember, I wondered whether this tendency was exaggerated when the parent is often absent.
As a junior in high school I recall feeling similarly frustrated with my father for not knowing that I had given up on my fourth-grade career aspiration years earlier (I had wanted to be a geneticist until I realized I was bad at math). If he had seen my attempts at problem sets in the interim, he never would have made that mistake.
Any impression that Facebook would have revolutionized my relationship with my father as a teenager was being quickly dispelled by Ella, Grace and Veronica, Collins' stepdaughter, who said she wasn't Facebook friends with either of her parents but that she was friends with her stepmother. And Grace said that she also was friends with her stepmother, Collins' wife.
I was surprised, but Dr. Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, wasn't, noting stepparents' role as "valued insider/outside figures."
"Stepchildren confide in them things they wouldn't tell their biological parents," he said, noting that stepparents can fulfill this role "online as well as in person."
While that's great for the stepparent, what is a noncustodial biological parent to do if phone conversations are awkward and social networking only works until the onset of adolescence? For Collins, the answer has been an unusual form of video chat; he and his daughters simply leave it on for hours and go about their regular business.
"It's just a window," he said. "It doesn't demand a particular kind of communication. It's terrible to have a phone call when the person isn't willing to do a kind of back-and-forth with you. But this window allows us to sit and do what parents and adolescents do together, which is almost nothing."
Cherlin agreed. "Before this electronic media, noncustodial parents had very formalized, appointment-driven communication with their kids," he said. "Electronic media may help noncustodial parents by informalizing the process of communicating with their children. They become less dependent on schedules and therefore more consistent with an easy, informal flow of information, which may be what teenagers like."
As sanguine as Collins is about video chat and social media, he realizes it's no substitute for living in the same house with his children. He cited a passage from "Civilization and Its Discontents," in which Sigmund Freud laments the intrusion of technology when speaking of his son, who was studying in Paris: "If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice."
"That's the great irony," Collins said. "Culture has put us in this place where we need things like Facebook and video chat. There's a contradiction to wrestle with there."
My own wrestling led to the same conclusion Grace eventually had come to. I ignored the request from my father. Unlike the Collinses, my father and I hadn't been living parallel lives through an open virtual window. Our phone calls had never become less awkward, only less frequent. Though I have many Facebook "friends" who scarcely know me, I decided I didn't want my father to be one of them.
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