BEIRUT: In Lebanon, the social network is fast becoming a family affair. Connected devices like tablets and smartphones have become more accessible to Lebanese, in turn widening access to the Web and its social media platforms across age groups. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like, once newfangled tools with which to escape the eye of an unconnected generation, have become with every phone upgrade incorporated into the daily life of Lebanon’s most outmoded.
And as a result, the extended family is butting into realms once dominated by the country’s youth.
While elsewhere former victims of poor judgment warn users to protect themselves from background checks by employers or schools, here young people seem more concerned with protecting their privacy from the snooping of extended family.
“At first, Facebook was only for you and close friends that you would share with. But then you have family as friends, so you have to censor,” said Tala, 22, who asked not to give her real name.
Tala stopped sharing albums and pictures she had posted before her relatives joined Facebook and changed her settings.
“I would appreciate some privacy,” she explained. As social media fads come and go, Instagram has provided Tala a new platform for picture sharing, one her family members have yet to infiltrate.
“Instagram remains more private than other networks and I feel comfortable sharing pictures,” Tala said.
Ayman Itani, CEO of Think Media Labs, an agency specialized in social media marketing, said he believes the act of creating a social media account on any platform absolves a user of some degree of privacy no matter what. “The concept of social media and privacy can’t and don’t coexist,” Itani said.
Worldwide, the number of people forfeiting their privacy to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is staggering.
British newspaper the Guardian reported that 556 million people have accessed their Facebook account through smartphones and tablets in 2013. “By the end of 2013, Facebook was being used by 1.23 billion users worldwide, adding 170 million in just one year,” said the article published in February 2014.
As for Instagram, the number of monthly active users has reached 200 million by March 2014, according to a report by the company. Some “20 billion photos shared on Instagram to date,” it said.
Locally, public photographs are a common gripe among newly connected parents, aunts and uncles, local young people said. Unlike Tala, who changed her settings, A. Rizk responded to her family’s presence on Facebook by going incognito.
“I used to share many duckface pictures on my Facebook, but then I had to stop because my father and relatives didn’t like them,” said Rizk, 17.
Rizk, who also preferred not to give her full name, explained that she went so far as to remove her father, family members and other mutual friends to prevent any kind of clash.
“I still share my duckface pictures,” she said. “I told my father that I deactivated my Facebook where in reality I just removed him and other relatives.” She even changed her name to curb her account’s search ability.
More than 30 members of Rizk’s large extended family are logged into Facebook regularly, so the young woman has turned to Instagram, a sanctuary from relatives where she can post as many pouty-lipped selfies as she likes.
“I don’t have relatives on Instagram, only friends,” she said. “This is my way to prevent further problems with my parents.”
For now, Instagram users may feel safe from a parental audience, but Itani explained that the photo-sharing platform is no more private than Facebook.
“Because the people around them aren’t the same as those on Facebook people think Instagram is more private,” he explained. “It’s a psychological myth. In fact, it’s the same lack of privacy.”
From a parental perspective, what children decided to share on social media perplexes more than it angers.
Maha Mneimneh, a teacher and a mother of two, explained that she respects the privacy of her children as they are now in their 20s. But regardless of Mneimneh’s open-mindedness, brazen public remarks from others on her children’s accounts continue to puzzle her.
“One time one of my children posted a picture on Facebook,” she said. There was nothing wrong with the photo but Mneimneh wasn’t a fan of the comments thread.
“It was hard for me to understand that this is how this generation talks among each other,” she said.
Rather than see the presence of family members as a threat to privacy, communication experts urged children and parents to use social media for positive engagement.
“[Social media] is a hot topic in family communication research,” said Khaled Nasser, a family communication counselor. “It gives you an indication of its importance and relevance to family relationships.”
Itani and Nasser both said parents should show restraint in approaching their children about things like questionable photos, for example. The key is to be present without violating a child’s right to privacy.
“When parents see an activity related to their kids on social media, let them monitor it rather than react,” Itani explained.
For instance, when Rizk’s father disliked the pictures she posted, a quick reaction led her to cut off his access. “When my father saw the pictures a small argument took place,” Rizk explained. “But he was very calm and explained to me his point of view.”
Calmness still didn’t stop her from breaking digital ties.
Nasser said humor may offer a better way for parents to make their opinion known about a questionable post. “The key aspect is not to be judgmental, let the child discuss this with them,” he said.
Parents can also look at these platforms as a new method for communication. Positive interaction among family members online may encourage children not to misuse social networks to compensate for lost attention or affection at home.
“Sometimes children run away to this reality to compete with their parents,” Nasser said. Children use this medium to create their own virtual reality where they can feel free to express themselves.
“I call it the democratization of family relations.”