By now almost everyone knows Facebook has introduced a new feature called Timeline. The redesign turns each Facebook page into a virtual scrapbook that includes everything a person has ever done or said on the site. Not surprisingly, many teens think this is great. Aside from the expansive new layout, they love the idea of creating a narrative in which they’re the star.
But not everyone is enthusiastic about the way Timeline makes details about the past so accessible. Many people post on Facebook with the assumption that it will swallow trivial, thoughtless, stupid, or ill-advised posts. Although “older posts” have always been available, getting at them was tedious and time consuming. Timeline encourages visitors to review each other’s lives year by year and automatically highlights items that generated a lot of comments.
From Time to Time
For parents, Timeline creates a teachable moment.
As children learn to use this new tool, parents have an ideal opportunity to raise questions, make suggestions, and inject more thinking into the use of social media. Before starting this conversation, consider curating your own Timeline if you use Facebook. Or visit Facebook for a quick overview of what’s possible. Then use Timeline to underscore these life lessons:
Put your best foot forward.
Timeline opens with a cover photo that stretches across the page, a dramatic introduction that confers a sort of instant celebrity.Because everyone (including you) can see this photo, your child should choose an image that captures his personality without imparting too much personal information. It’s like choosing an outfit for the first day of school or a job interview. You want to create an impression that’s consistent with the relationships you hope to have.
Don’t rely on a computer to think for you.
The default version of Timeline is created by a computer program that gives extra space to posts that have gotten a lot of attention from friends. These won’t necessarily be the posts that sum up your child’s life. The best way to regain biographical control is to use Activity Log, a feature that lets your child give a thumbs-up or -down to past posts, photos, links, and other activities. To eliminate an item, run the cursor over its top right corner. Click the pencil icon and choose “Delete” or “Hide from Timeline.” Or click on a star so the post is highlighted and stretches across both Timeline columns.
You are accountable for what you do.
Being an adult means taking responsibility for your actions. Timeline underscores the point that the Internet isn’t a free zone where anything goes. Seeing the sweep of a life—even a young one—may make your child more mindful. Should Facebook chronicle the trivial or the consequential, the things you do or the thoughts they inspire, what you like or what you detest? These questions don’t have automatic answers, but asking them encourages the kind of “examined life” that wise people have recommended we lead.
History is slippery.
Timeline makes it possible to edit the past—at least as it appears on Facebook. In addition to hiding or deleting old posts, users can now add events that occurred BF—before Facebook started in 2004. They can also move events to a new part of Timeline simply by clicking “Change Dates.” All of this lets young people shape what the world knows about them—and revise it as they age. At the least, this should make for interesting dinner table conversation about how history gets made. Who gets to choose the details? Who gets to interpret them?
Privacy has a purpose.
Timeline makes it easier for people to retrieve information about each other. This creates a potential bonanza for stalkers and identity thieves who will now be able to find easy answers to typical security questions like the name of your first pet. Encourage your child to use the privacy tools Timeline provides. Every post can be designated: Public (everyone can see), Friends (everyone on your friend list can see), Only me (useful for things you want to remember but not share), and Custom. The Custom option is cumbersome but has value. By creating lists, your child can make certain posts visible only to the soccer team, the chess club, the people he met at his part-time job, or relatives she sees only at Christmas.
Know your friends.
By default, Timeline is visible to anyone your child has accepted as a friend. If he’s been casual about adding or aggressive about recruiting friends, this is a good time to cull the friend list. A quiz called What’s Her Facebook (whatsherface-book.com) helps users get real about who’s actually a friend. The app shows random pictures of “friends” to see if a user can identify them. As the authors (tech students at Yale) point out, even pseudo friends have permission to share personal info with third party apps on Facebook. Now with Timeline, they’ll also be privy to a person’s entire Facebook history. Kids who don’t want to edit their friend list should think carefully about how they can make their posts “suitable for all audiences.”
Review your work.
If your child doesn’t take time to design a Timeline, Facebook will do it for him. Either way, it’s important to see yourself as others will see you. To do this, click the cog under the cover photo. On the drop down menu, choose “View as” to see what the public can see. Or enter the name of the friend to get her view of you. Encourage your child to use this as an exercise in self-understanding. What do people see when they look at you? How does it match what you know about yourself?
Like other online innovations, Timeline is a tool. Talking to teens about how, when, why, and even whether they want to use it helps them think about the kind of people they want to be. And that’s an opportunity every thoughtful parent will want to seize.
Carolyn Jabs, MA, has been writing about families and technology for 20 years. She’s the mother of three computer-savvy kids. All rights reserved.