MODESTO — When Elizabeth Zapien-Plata wants to know what her son is doing, she could call. But she knows its probably faster just to check his Facebook page.
The Modesto mother and business owner often keeps track of her 19-year-old son, Edward Plata II, through his Facebook profile. Or his Tumblr blog. Or his Twitter feed.
"That is their first mode of communication or contact. Phone is last," Zapien-Plata said of her kids. "I text them, too, because they can never say, 'I didn't get your text, mom.' And I know they check their Facebook. They practically sleep with their phones."
In October, most of the family — everyone except her three youngest kids — upgraded to iPhones. Since then, they said, the devices have made keeping tabs on each other easier then ever.
While the frequent complaint about the Internet is that it makes us more isolated, some families have harnessed the power of social media and emerging technologies to become even closer.
Also, by joining and participating in the same social media sites as their kids, parents said they can better protect their children online.
Zapien-Plata, former owner of the Modesto boutique Queen Mab's who now runs the salvaged and recycled clothing line Gaudy Couture with son Edward, has "friended" her two teen sons on Facebook and talked with them about the importance of being safe online.
Balancing need for privacy
Zapien-Plata's husband, Edward Plata Sr., is also on Facebook, but is only "friends" with his 17-year-old son, Evan.
"Edward won't be my friend, but believe me I find ways to find out what he's doing," Ed joked. "But really I want to respect his privacy, and there are some things I don't want to know either."
But the younger Edward said even though he doesn't share his Facebook page with his father, his cell phone has made it simpler to share his life with his family.
"It's so easy to send a picture or a video," said Edward, a Modesto Junior College student and hairstylist at Plush Hair Studio. "I feel I'm more open to them now because it's so easy to update them. And it feels good to share."
Over the weekend, Edward sent his family a video of a baby deer discovered while hiking. And the family often exchanges pictures and links via Facebook.
"I feel good when he says, 'Mom, I just posted something, go look at it.' " Zapien-Plata said. "I just feel it's a wonderful connection."
In fact, Edward said his parents being tech savvy has helped bridge the generation gap between them.
"If you see an older person than you who is up-to-date with technology, you'll feel more connected," he said. "I feel like if my parents had the cheapest cell phone that didn't have online access or text, we'd have nothing in common."
Qingwen Dong, department chair of communications at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, studies social media and said the generation that has grown up with Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, et al., sees sharing online as a natural part of daily communication.
"Social media is unique. It brings the traditional neighborhood into a virtual neighborhood," he said. "The younger generation tends to be more dependent on the new media. They take advantage of this new media and sharing information with each other. The older generation also uses it, but they tend to use it for job-related purposes. The function of their usage is different."
Resigned to latest media
Parents who have connected with their kids via the various new media said they've resigned themselves to doing it the new way. Modesto resident Trinity Balmonte said she always texts her 16-year old daughter, Cassy, because she knows its faster than calling.
They are friends on Facebook, and Balmonte said being on the site has been a way for them to discuss the importance of online privacy and etiquette. She said she set up her daughter's account and put all her information on the strictest privacy settings.
"I definitely think that Facebook is a positive thing," said Balmonte. "But we need as parents to be more proactive. We can't just trust that our good kids will stay good kids. We can never just let them go. They are always still learning from their parents."
She said that when she reads some of her daughter's friends' posts, she is floored by some of the things they post — from vulgar language to private information.
Dong, the communications professor, said because they've grown up with the technology, the younger generation is more apt to share personal and intimate parts of their lives online. In fact, they crave the immediate response and positive feedback it can bring.
Cassy, a sophomore at Johansen High School, said she sees that need to share in her Facebook friends.
"I have friends who are constantly posting stuff," she said. "I think they are just trying to stay in contact for friends, letting people know they're not going to be home for five minutes or you can't text them for five minutes. People are so nosy now that if you don't tell them where you are every minute they seem to get worried."
Bridging the generations
Adjusting to the new forms and types of communication can take some time. But moms such as Turlock resident Rachel Johnson said changing with the times is essential and even a fun way for families to keep in touch.
Johnson, 12-year-old daughter Lauren and Johnson's 54-year-old mother are on Facebook. They share pictures, read each other's status updates and play games online. She even has organized Lauren's run for class president via Facebook.
Johnson said social media and text messaging are the origami folded notes of her youth.
But she said she also feels like too much communication though a screen can have its downside.
"I do feel there is a difference, I feel like there is a huge difference," she said. "It robs her of the social skills she needs to have face-to-face friendships. She never uses the actual phone. When I was her age, my mom would scream at me because I was on the phone all the time."
Studies have borne out Johnson's suspicions. Dong is in the midst of a study of his University of the Pacific students that shows that most of them prefer texting to talking face-to-face with friends.
Zapien-Plata said that is why parents need to step in and take control of the technology instead of letting it control them.
"I think if you are already connected that way as a family, it enhances it," she said. "A lot of work goes into interpersonal connection. There are times when we might be out and I realize everyone is on their iPhone. And then I say, 'OK, everyone put it down.' "
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2284.