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A Serious Side to Unfriending on Facebook


Earlier in November, comedian Jimmy Kimmel created a media buzz when he declared November 17 as National Unfriend Day. The declaration targets the immensely popular social networking website Facebook.com, where users gather friends by the dozens. Kimmel's argument is that most of us probably don't have relationships with most of the hundreds, or even thousands, of friends we are linked to on the site.

While presented as a humorous idea, Kimmel obviously had a serious message he was trying to get across when he encouraged people to disconnect from others who "are not really your friends."

Personally I rarely use my Facebook account, but I have had occasions where I'm asked to accept someone as a friend and I haven't got a clue who they are. Granted, my memory for names and faces has never been good, but even I used to feel a strange sort of polite pressure to resist snubbing someone's request to be my friend. Rightly or wrongly, as the years have passed, I'm getting much more comfortable clicking that "Ignore" button on requests from people I really don't know.

I'm not alone in this dilemma. While at a party a couple of months ago, I came upon a conversation within a group of adults who were lamenting about this same issue. Said one woman, "I feel so bad by not accepting a friend invitation!"

While Kimmel's advice may be prudent for the over-18 crowd, in my experience, it's even more applicable to teens using the service. In September the national Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported that police in the province of Nova Scotia did a five-week study with local university students who were asked to create fictitious profiles and use passive means to invite friends between the ages of 12 and 17. Under police supervision, the university students posed as teenagers who claimed to have just moved to the region. Of the real teens that were asked to add these fake friends, only two rejected the request because their parents monitored who they accepted as friends on Facebook.

The results from this small study should be a wakeup call for any parent who has a teen using Facebook or any other social networking service. While we often hear cautions about the content teens post on these sites, having a too liberal attitude about adding friends can inadvertently open even more information about you to people you may have long forgotten about. Just as you (hopefully) know the friends your kids deal with in the "real" world, you should also take a peek at who they are connected with in the virtual arena. The most effective way of doing this is to directly discuss the situation with them and ask if they are comfortable with sharing their list of virtual friends with you. (Be forewarned -- it's likely hundreds of people long.) Next, get your own Facebook profile and "friend" your kids. Then you can keep tabs on who they are connecting with as well.

If your teens aren't open to what they may view as Orwellian tactics, there's a good chance this information is still available to you -- and anyone else on the Internet. To see if this is the case get your own Facebook account and visit your kids' profiles. There you may discover you can survey their list of friends without their permission. (Note that your children's list of friends can be made private. Go to the privacy settings page on Facebook, click "Connecting on Facebook" and then adjust the setting next to "See Your Friend List."

In the end, pruning friends may seem like a nasty thing to do, but the problem with Facebook and other social networking services is time passes very quickly. As we collect mere acquaintances, a few years later they may become strangers. While I enjoy my group of friends as much as anyone, it's good to keep tabs on how many people we are sharing personal information with.


Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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