EDUCATION

A NEW USE FOR FACEBOOK

Parental snooping is changing the residence experience, for worse

ERIN MILLAR October 1 2007
EDUCATION

A NEW USE FOR FACEBOOK

Parental snooping is changing the residence experience, for worse

ERIN MILLAR October 1 2007

A NEW USE FOR FACEBOOK

EDUCATION

Parental snooping is changing the residence experience, for worse

ERIN MILLAR

The day Chris Brush moved into residence at the University of British Columbia was the “most nervous day of [his] life.” He had never been away from home, and now he was expected to live in a shoebox with a complete stranger. “I showed up for the first time at my 12-foot-wide room,” he said, “and there was this 225-lb., hulking guy talking big about football and drinking.” Brush was a scrawny political science student—and terrified.

Although now, five years later, Brush says he and his roommate turned out to be great friends, he could have avoided roommate anxiety with the online networking sites available to this year’s crop of freshmen. Websites like Facebook—the most popular collegefocused website in the world with 34 million users—help students research their future roommates well in advance of frosh week. But students aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the vast array of personal information available—parents are getting wise to the site, and they don’t always like what they see. University housing officials say that now that social networking sites are open to the public, snooping parents are contributing to a spike in advance requests for roommate switches.

“The parents are the ones who are really unhappy or scared,” said Robyn BerkowitzSmith, associate director for residence life at Syracuse University. “All the concerns that we receive through the phones are from them.” While hard-partying roommates aren’t popular among parents, the most common problems that Berkowitz-Smith deals with concern the race, religion or sexual orientation of the future roommate. Syracuse University doesn’t accommodate switches except in extreme circumstances, and this upsets worried parents, who often request the switches before the roommates have even met. But often when Berkowitz-Smith meets with the students alone, they are not as concerned as their parents about being paired with someone from a different background. “Nine times out of 10, we are in contact with the student within the first month to move them, and they don’t want to move,” she said.

One of the problems with getting a first impression from Facebook is that only surface information is available, according to

PARENTS WANT ROOMMATE CHANGES BASED ON RACE, RELIGION, DRINKING HABITS

Berkowitz-Smith. The site is made up of networks of people’s profiles, which detail the users’ gender, sexual orientation, politics, religion and interests, as well as display photos. “Judgments are being made on the basis of one night, or one party,” she said.

Parents’ roommate requests often run counter to what the residence experience is all about, according to most housing officials. Students are encouraged to break out of their social clique by living with different types of

people. Janice Robinson, the director of residence life at the University of British Columbia, thinks parents should encourage their students to learn from the diverse campus environment. “We hope that students leave university with a better understanding of other cultures. And so we value diversity in residence,” she said.

Students have their own issues with their parents’ snooping. Parents shouldn’t make judgments based on Facebook because they don’t understand its “culture,” says third-year University of British Columbia student Sonja Rummell. She says her mother has never snooped on her Facebook profile. “Thank God,” she said. “My mom would think her daughter was a drunk. All the pictures are drinking related.” Rummell says that her peers understand that the booze-soaked campus life portrayed by Facebook is not a complete reflection of their lives, but parents just don’t get it.

But sometimes parents’ concerns turn out to be legitimate. Terry Calhoun, director of communications and publications for the Michigan-based Society for College and University Planning, described a case where a parent requested a switch after stumbling across troubling information about his child’s future roommate. “This was not a case of religious or racial bias, however,” Calhoun wrote. “It was more serious than that. It was the kind of stuff that, in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings, sends shudders though parents’ and administrators’ bodies.” The page in question was, as Calhoun’s colleague put it, “some sort of paean to automatic weapons, explosives, violence and destruction.”

Then again, as the Virginia Tech shootings demonstrated, even when universities know about troubled students, they don’t always know how to deal with them. The situation raised serious questions at the university: did they really want the future roommate at their school at all? Could they rescind an acceptance based on the information gathered online? Should they be routinelyresearching applicants this way?

But such cases are rare. For the most part, housing officials seem to agree that Facebook is helping students ease the social awkwardness of the new school year. “When you are coming to university and you don’t know anyone, it can be nice to have an idea of the people ahead of time,” said Berkowitz-Smith. But in terms of parents doing their own Facebook research, Rummell sums it up best: “Just don’t look.” M