How parents are the new “social stalkers” as the empty nest goes digital

Aug 23, 2013 at 10:10 AM ET

It’s that time of year. The family vans have been packed. Childhood bedrooms have been emptied. Almost all of Bed Bath & Beyond’s merchandise is now out of stock, and for many kids, independence from their parents’ dominion has finally, finally, been won.

You’ve kissed them good-bye. Literally and figuratively. You’ve watched the family car disappear down University Avenue. You’ve taken note of the fact that when they get home they will be 236 miles away from you, and you’re so excited you make your Facebook status: “Settled into my dorm. Finally on my own!!”

But then, YOUR DAD LIKES IT. And your mom comments, “You better miss me, Buttercup! I still remember when you were wetting the bed!” Suddenly you realize they haven’t left you alone at all.

And in this day and age, they may never.

In the social media era, some parents feel particularly strongly about their right to stay connected. With the help of Vocativ’s web-harvesting technology, we were able to detect a groundswell of—shall we say sentimental sentiment?—among the well-wired, about-to-be-empty nesters, including this pledge, circulating among parents anxious about their kids leaving home.

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Sending the kids away has never been easy on Mom and Dad. The house grows unusually quiet, there are suddenly gaping holes in their daily routines, and (as is the case with my mother) the sight of something as trivial as an empty closet might make them want to cry. It’s called empty nest syndrome, a not exactly clinical—but emotionally very real—disorder experienced by parents who desperately miss the very kids who once made a point of pissing them off. Even the Obamas admitted to getting a second dog in order to “ease the pain” of realizing their children were growing up.

For the parents of millennials, however, the nest doesn’t exactly empty. It just goes digital.

“I can stalk my kids with only my laptop and a cup of coffee,” writes Lisa Heffernan of the website and parenting forum Grown and Flown. “I can see their friends’ FB pages and twitter feeds… Photos, stories and videos of their actions will stream my way and I cannot help but feel a little sorry for them. I am not sure I would have wanted my parents to have had such a window into my teen life.”

I’m sure her kids would agree.

A 2012 survey by the Pew research center found that 80 percent of parents on Facebook had friended at least one of their kids. A report from the University of Edinburgh Business School from the same year found that “more Facebook friends means more stress,” with parents being one of the primary sources of the anxiety. More often, however, posts, pokes, photos and comments from one’s parents seem to be a source of vexation, humor or embarrassment, rather than actual hand-wringing.

Take Lauren, a 23-year-old graduate of Boston College whose mother uses Facebook and Instagram and reportedly loves both. “She’ll see my friends going places or doing things, and then she’ll talk to me about it as if she or I were there with them,” Lauren says in a message to me (over Facebook no less). “It drives me nuts and I tell her not to approach people with something she saw them doing on Facebook because it’s awkward. It especially drives me crazy when she’ll call me and tell me what my boyfriend was up to because of Facebook posts.”

Or there’s Zoe, a 24-year-old graduate of Sewannee University who now lives abroad. After moving away to Spain, she found that her dad’s peculiar and occasionally humiliating humor in person had seamlessly translated into social media banter online. He decided to comment on her page in Spanish every chance he got. The thing is, he knows only one phrase—vaya con dios (go with God)—which he just kept posting, regardless of content on which he was commenting. 

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When Zoe began dating a Chilean, her dad began doing the same on her boyfriend’s page, as well as requesting that he translate his status updates into English.

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Zoe’s dad also tends to like his own comments.

Sometimes the need to digitally reach out to your progeny may even reach your grandparents. After Beau, a 22-year-old senior at St. Andrews University, elected to be “In a Relationship” with a girl as a joke, his grandmother posted this message on his wall (which has since been deleted):

“WHO IS ELISE KROHN STOP IS SHE TO BE THE MOTHER OF MY FUTURE GREATGRANDCHILDREN?!?!??! STOP WHEN IS THE WEDDING?! STOP SEND PHOTOS”

The “stops” are a vestige left over from the telegram.

Other millennials have taken to Twitter to express their dismay over their parent’s questionable digital savviness.

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When Facebook becomes infiltrated, some kids turn to Twitter as their primary social media tool.

But once Twitter is infiltrated…

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Ultimately though, giving your parents the opportunity to stay in touch likely outweighs any embarrassing comment or post, which can always be deleted. And it can make catching up over the phone more efficient when social media has already primed them on the menial happenings of our daily lives. “I would not know what the hell my children were doing if it wasn’t for social media,” says Joyce, who is the mother of one of my friends. “I just helps me stay connected. Otherwise I’d miss them too much.” It’s also ironic that kids themselves are often the ones who set up their parents’ social media accounts in the first place, then teach them how to use them: “So this here is the status bar. It is not same as Google search. And this here is the like button. You click it when you like something, but please, Mom, use it sparingly.”

If you think your parents just want to join for communal purposes, say, to join an Empty Nest support group, think again.

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A full 50 percent of parents say keeping tabs on their kids was their primary reason for joining, according to data released in February, courtesy of Education Database Online. Luckily, we still have our privacy settings to fall back on if our parents ever infringe too much on our social media freedoms, but some are already thinking of work arounds for that.

“Do you know if there is a way to make it look like you aren’t on Facebook, but you really still are? Like so no one can see me, but I can see them?” Joyce asked me. “I Googled that the other day, but I don’t think it’s a thing yet.”