When mommy blogging became popular in the early 2000s, a debate began about how much to share about children. The simple, obvious answer to many was: don’t share at all.
But that answer appreciated neither that social media is here to stay and will be a part of children’s lives, nor that much of modern parenthood is a lonely affair. First, I will look to the loneliness.
A long time ago, when most mothers stayed at home, there was a built-in social network. There was a weekly schedule, one without baby-intensive enrichment activities. That left plenty of time for social interaction among mothers. And because of this social interaction among their wives, husbands made local connections as well. Community just happened.
Then those old, reliable patterns began to disappear. The parent at home—more and more fathers take that role these days—often felt isolated.
Blogging came to the rescue. It helped fill that need for connection with other adults. Then came Facebook videos and #BabiesofInstagram, to name but two. For the most part this sharing has been a way for parents to build community. It has also been an arena for passive aggressive bragging competitions. “Oh no! What am I going to do? Three-year-old Peanut can read now and gets frightened by the ingredient lists on cereal boxes!” I’m exaggerating a little, but only a little.
Whether for community or competition, however, what do the children think about being shared? Here it gets complicated.
Researchers at the Universities of Washington and Michigan, conducted a survey of parent and child views of family technology rules. Essentially, they asked participants what their family rules are and how (and if) they are followed.
Some of the findings played out as expected. For instance, children reported rules on activity constraints like “no smartphone until you are 13,” and context constraints, such as “no phones at the dinner table.” The straightforward activity constraints were easier for the kids to follow and the adults to enforce than the context constraints. Frankly, this is a “you needed a study to learn that?” finding. Did we really need a study to discover that it is easier to keep kids off of a device than to take it away?
But the findings about adults and the family rules contained some surprises:
In most respects, expectations for adults differed from expectations for children. Adults were censured for using their phones while driving, modeling inappropriate behaviors for children, failing to live up to the family-wide rules they set themselves, and sharing content about children without permission[.]
That last, sharing content without permission, has gotten the most commentary from parents that I have seen. For one, the other violation most reported by the children—adults fail to follow their own rules and “be present” for the children—is harder to admit and fix. Best to gloss over that one. For another, we tend to default to focusing on what the kids want. We claim it as the reason we do most everything, so we talk about it a lot. (In France, apparently you can face jail time for posting pics of your children.)
Then there is the unfairness issue—unfairness to the parents, that is.
I was a sort of mommy blogger for about five years. I engaged in many debates with other mommy bloggers about sharing kid stuff. As we blogged about mom stuff by definition, nobody refused to share anything about their kids. If you did not want to share anything then you didn’t write a mommy blog. Therefore the debate was always how much to share.
I used what I eventually dubbed the Erma Bombeck rule. I told stories about typical kid stuff, like needing to chisel them out of bed on school days but having them wake at the crack of dawn on Saturdays (I still do not know how they manage this). Or I might lament their unerring ability to start loudly bickering while I’m trying to merge onto the freeway. (Actually, that one I don’t usually lament. For that one I often yell. A lot. My kids will vouch.) I hoped that if one day others looked up stories about my children, they would see that they were once typical children.
The “share anything” mothers viewed motherhood as their journey, their story. These mothers felt that they owned the right to tell their motherhood story, and the kids were their characters. At the most extreme, which I ran across more than a few times, these mothers viewed any expectation that they should hold back their story out of deference to their children as a violation against women. (I should probably note that I hung out on a lot of feminist motherhood blogs.)
I often wondered when the kids would count as people. Eventually, I just stuck the whole debate on the shelf. I blithely ignored the thought that the babe in my arms would one day be a fully grown person with hopes, desires, as well as opinions about how things should be done. I’m not quite to the teen years yet, but have been reliably informed that the day arrives sooner and with more vigor than parents expect. Incidentally, Bombeck titled one of her later books, Family, The Ties That Bind…And Gag.
Which gets us to the second thing we would prefer to ignore about children and social media. Our children are growing up in a world where some of their identity is formed online, or really where snapshots of their identity formation can become public and affect their identity. They need a say in this part of their lives, both for their identity and so that they can learn about sharing—beyond anything or nothing. The former can be a lesson by fire and the latter is no lesson at all.
I held to my Erma Bombeck rule until recently. My eldest is almost a teen. He’s a boy and I often write about boy crisis issues and stories can make for effective advocacy. A while ago, his father and I discussed what stories I might share. Then we talked with our son. Through these discussions he has the final say in what is shared about him and he hears us analyze the pitfalls and benefits of sharing. We will probably have similar discussions with our eldest daughter soon.
Just as we teach them patience, chores, or reading—we help our children build those skills methodically over time—we teach them to navigate this new virtual life. It will not do to simply leave them to it or set them in it.