Valerie O'Connor initially joined Facebook to find grade school friends for an upcoming reunion. Now the stay-at-home mom of two from Clarendon Hills logs onto the site about three times a day. "I use it to share pictures of my kids with family and friends, to reconnect with lost friends and to keep in closer contact with my good friends," says O'Connor. "It helps me feel more connected to those I can't speak with regularly."
What about you? Whether you're just getting the hang of Facebook or have your own Twitter account, chances are you're using some kind of social media. That's part of life-and parenting-today.
"Social media is just the new way that parents can connect socially, the new way that they share and the new way that they communicate," says technology and parenting expert Sharon Cindrich, author of A Smart Girl's Guide to the Internet (American Girl Publishing, 2009). "It's not that different from the socializing we're used to in real life but it allows us a farther reach and anytime connections-and more opportunities to connect. For example, in the past, you wouldn't connect with your high school folks but now you will because you see them on Facebook."
Whether you work outside the home or not, social media provides additional benefits to parents of all stripes. "Where we used to connect over the backyard fences, the social dynamic has changed," says Cindrich. "More parents are working or working different hours and it's harder to just walk out your door and find groups of parents you can hang with or ask a question."
Say you're a single parent, or an adoptive parent or a parent raising a child with a health issue or learning disability. Social media gives you multiple opportunities to connect and exchange info with parents dealing with similar issues. Ask a question, and you'll be amazed at what you can learn from your online friends.
O'Connor says she's gotten great craft ideas, menu tips and medical advice from friends online. "In fact, a couple of weeks ago, my son was very sick-puking and not able to keep any fluids down at all. So in my status update I asked if something was going around and how to get him to take fluids," she says. "By the end of the day I knew that a stomach bug was circulating, how long it would last and what worked for my friends' kids."
If you only use social media for work purposes (such as using Linked In for career networking), it may not impact your role as a parent. But for most moms and dads, the time you spend online may impact your kids-whether you realize it or not.
"The way you use social media, the time you spend doing it, the photos you pick, your status updates and posts-your kids are picking up on that and absorbing it," says Cindrich. "So, for example, if you're making fun of someone's post or photo, that's a behavior they're going to note and possibly repeat."
It's not only your attitude toward social media but the way you use it that affects you and your kids. That's why it's important to be aware of your "digital image," says Cindrich. "You have to be thoughtful when you're choosing what you're putting online and think about how that's going to impact your family."
In other words, posting about your wild night at your high school reunion probably isn't a wise idea, nor is bashing your husband because he forgot to pick up your daughter from her play date.
Still, social media lets people stay connected more easily than ever before.
Andrea Cummings, a customer service representative, says she enjoys the games on MySpace and Facebook but also uses the sites to keep up with friends, family and former classmates. "I admit I check it at least once a day if I can," says Cummings, mother of one who lives in Lynwood. "I use it to keep in touch. And I love to see and share all the precious moments … that I cannot be there for."
So what's the right approach to social media? It all depends on you. "There are absolutely no rules," says Cindrich. "Some people only use it for their private lives, some use it only for their work lives and some do both."
The amount and types of posts you make will also depend on you. Take today. On Facebook's News Feed this morning, I saw friends post about their kids' latest milestones, current work projects and relocation plans. I read posts asking for advice and sharing new photos. I learned what was going on in the world and reconnected with friends-without even leaving my chair.
But that's one of the drawbacks of Facebook and its ilk. If you're obsessed with rescuing lost farm animals online or mastering Mafia Wars (an addictive online game) but haven't seen an IRL ("in real life") friend in days, it may be time to step away from the keyboard-at least for now. "It's really important to strike a balance," says Cindrich. "Personal social interaction-whether over the phone or meeting face-to-face-is important for your relationships and happiness."
Stay-at-home mom O'Connor considers her Facebook time "a little sanity break."
"It's a balancing act, though. It's easy to spend a lot more time than I should on Facebook," she says. "A drawback to Facebook in general is that by knowing what people are up to on a daily basis, we're less inclined to call each other or use other means to see how people are. It's a lot easier to post a happy birthday message on someone's wall rather than call them and say happy birthday, which I think is kind of sad."
But it's clear that social networking is here to stay-and can facilitate and build IRL relationships as well. "We used to think of social networking as the online or not quite 'real life' experience but it is," says Cindrich. "It's a regular way of communicating. It's a very natural and normal evolution of our social interaction and it's important to embrace it to a certain extent and take advantage of the opportunities that are there."
Despite the drawbacks to Facebook, O'Connor agrees. A relative newcomer to the Chicago area, she admits it's been hard to make new close friends locally. "Additionally, I am a stay-at-home mom and as a result feel a bit isolated at times-lonely occasionally," she says. "Facebook allows me (in a very small way) to feel less alone. Plus I've been able to reconnect with people who were just acquaintances in high school, but because of common ground now (being moms, etc.) we've become friends-in an actual way, not a Facebook way."
Kelly James-Enger is a former lawyer, a mom of two and a freelance writer.
See more of Kelly's stories here.