Two 20-something brothers share an apartment in hipster Brooklyn, N.Y., and often post selfies on Facebook and Instagram of Sunday brunches with friends. It never fails that the first "like" – "Way to go boys! – is always from Aunt Sally. "It drives them nuts that she comments immediately," their mom says. Apparently, Aunt Sally doesn't know the unspoken rule of social media: Adults can see but not be heard.
Through Facebook and Instagram we enjoy a front-row seat at our children's daily dramas, from teenage grandchildren to millennial parents. Without social media we probably wouldn't know half of what goes on in their lives. Yet sometimes we feel like aliens lurking in an alternate universe, unaware of the rules of engagement.
In her practice, therapist Linda Herman hears complaints from young people about what they perceive as social media missteps by parents, including commenting too often, friending their friends and posting personal information. And some young parents are driven crazy by parents' posting photos of the grandchildren without permission. "Parents want to determine what goes online," says Herman, who's based in Kent, Wash., and the author of Parents to the End.
"In essence, when we are included as a Facebook friend to our children, we have been invited into their world," she says. "We wouldn't go to their homes and dominate a conversation, nor share very personal information in the presence of others."
The best way to handle what to post and what not to post, she suggests, is to have an offline conversation with your children about their preferences on what and how much you can share, both digitally and chatting with friends and family. That even includes things like congratulations on a promotion or comments about your child's travels.
Harvard law student Jennie Shulkin, whose mom and three grandparents are among her Facebook friends, offers some additional guidelines for navigating this digital minefield:
- Remember that posts are public. Your children and their friends see your comments and likes. Stop to think before posting, especially if comments are political or personal. Some parents think their child is the only one who sees their messages. "It can cause embarrassment."
- Observe, but don't discuss. Some of our children and grandchildren prefer that we don't comment extensively online or bring up personal posts in conversation. "There's a bit of a blurry line where parents and grandparents know about our lives by sitting home on their computers. But if they bring it up in person before we do, it feels uncomfortable."
- Telephone if a post upsets your child. Pick up the phone and call rather than ask online, "What's the matter?"
- Limit your likes. Most of all: Don't be a "pioneer," the first to like a post or photo. It often discourages friends from making comments. However, if you are way down among other comments, friends tend not to notice.
- No comment may be the best comment. Sometimes a millennial will post a party or romantic photo and then feel uncomfortable when a relative comments, "Wild party!" In those cases, "Ask yourself whether you'd be comfortable talking about this in person. If not, then ignore it and even in person pretend you didn't see it."
- Celebrate the positive. Lots of times adult children do welcome a shout-out or a flashback photo. "My mom always asks first, but it's nice when she shares memories of me so my friends can see it, too."
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothemothering21.com