Blog post by Jessica Maliphant, Child Emotional Well-Being Consultant and Sarah Martindale, Horizon Research Fellow
© J. Maliphant, 2014
It’s summer and Facebook news feeds are awash with idyllic, sun-drenched snapshots of family life. Bringing together our interests in the lifelong digital footprint and child development, we want to reflect on how we, and others, represent ourselves online through images of our families. As parents we post photos (we’ve used an example to illustrate) and occasional comments relating to our young children, and share these with each other as part of extended social networks, but should we give more thought to what is appropriate and what is not in this space? This was a question asked last year in a Guardian article about the effect of ‘sharenting’ on children as they grow up. We are more interested here in why parents use social media and the effects these practices have on them: the cultural nuances at play in creating and consuming social media portraits of family life; and how these can be better supported.
Whilst we are all familiar with the (derogatory) stereotype of a ‘Soccer Mom’ living through her children, how many of us are actually embroiled in virtual lives played out through our children digitally? A recent Windows phone advert (to use marketing as a bellwether of socio-cultural trends) played off parents’ desperate quests to get the perfect record of their kids’ achievements. In the context of people’s social media news feeds the seemingly voracious appetite for sharing photos of offspring can be dispiritingly obvious and intrusive. It’s worth noting that the Google Chrome browser extension rather, which replaces undesirable content on the user’s Facebook and Twitter feeds with something they’d rather see, started out life as Unbaby.me. Of course, expressions of parental pride and enthusiasm are not a product of the Internet but, as Emma Beddington concludes in the Guardian article, ‘it has just made the phenomenon horribly ubiquitous’.
The constant uploading of positive imagery – as advocated by wellbeing ‘challenge’100happydays and app Blipfoto – while obviously a personally uplifting exercise, can paint a rose-tinted picture of family life that represents a very partial view of reality. Offering a counterpoint are bloggers who deliberately chronicle the messy and chaotic aspects of parenthood. Films made by combining a second of footage from each day, such as this one made by Danny Pier to document his wife’s pregnancy, seem to occupy a position somewhere in between: many of the shots are mundane but, taken together, the film aims to depict their lived experience as uplifting and joyful, to amount to more than a series of recorded moments. Recounting the stories of our lives is a tantalising and compulsive pursuit, and it is easy to forget that such narratives can create a digital footprint for children before they have even mastered the art of leaving an actual footprint.
A recent project on the subject of ‘digital birth’ by Horizon CDT student George Filip highlighted some very interesting online practices that start even before the physical birth of a child, during pregnancy. At the extreme, as reported by the bluntly named blog STFU Parents, expectant mothers assume the identity of their unborn child: using a sonogram image as a profile picture and posting in character; even setting up a‘bwog’ for the foetus where visitors can ‘guess when I will be born and win a pwize from my Daddy’. Such performances of the ‘puppeteering mother’ represent more than cutesiness, reflecting the neoliberal imperative on mothers to subordinate their own needs to those of their child as a form of ‘being-for-intimate-others’ [i]. As mothers we are therefore able to accrue self-worth through a projected other, but in doing so we also construct an identity for our children. And as there isn’t yet a generation that can express how it feels to grow up in such a world it is difficult to assess the wider implications of doing so.
It is paradoxical, but the wider implications of sharing information among a social network are often occluded. Because none of us expect our innocuous holiday snaps to ‘go viral’ it’s easy to forget that in posting them to Facebook we are nevertheless creating ‘spreadable media’ [ii]. The content we share is a resource our friends can use and circulate, but this seems difficult for us to conceptualise. One teenage research participant thoughtfully reflected on this point recently as part of the research project Charting the Digital Lifespan: ‘with social networking it’s you and your computer and the people who are replying aren’t really there in the back of your head’. The mediating screen alters our sense of interactional etiquette and allows us to take ownership and advantage of our children’s identities in new ways. In another project focus group one mother commented on the sheer amount of information we share about our children, pointing out ‘you wouldn’t go up and like do that to another person in person because they’d just look at you strangely saying: do I care?’
So what fuels this insatiable need as a parent to ‘share’ our family experiences? Perhaps the old African proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ can help us to understand our motives. In a world where people often need to travel for work, may live abroad and can be far removed from more traditional figures of support such as the extended family, social media can become a digital ‘village’ offering a replacement support structure. At the end of a very long summer school term children and their parents have been at breaking point and close to nervous exhaustion. Under these circumstances we’ve experienced the reassurance of knowing that other parents in our social networks care and understand when we feel isolated and at our wits end. Indeed, research has found that new parents who post pictures of their child and receive responses report greater satisfaction with parenthood and, although among mothers more frequent visits to Facebook are associated with higher levels of stress, it may be that mothers experiencing stress turn to Facebook for support and information [iii]. That view fits with research indicating that social networking can be a useful source of new information for mothers with preschool-aged children in particular [iv].
So why, if we turn to social networks for help with the difficult business of parenting, do the representations of families we encounter in these digital domains so often come across as competitive and/or intimidating? Given that social networks often include our childhood friends, it sometimes feels as though we’re reliving playground anxieties and rivalries through the next generation. Ultimately, ‘social network participants enter into online social spaces with the assumption that the information posted there is available to a broad and ill-defined audience with no clear boundaries’ [v]. Precisely because it is so difficult to conceptualise who is on the other side of the screen when we post we feel obliged to portray ourselves in a good light, even when entering into serious exchanges. This tension between motivation for sharing and concern for self-representation extends beyond parents’ use of social media: the no makeup selfie trend received criticism as both narcissistic and demeaning, however well intentioned. One blogger eloquently describes the positive slant we place on our online profiles when she writes, ‘So accustomed are we to the FaceTwit-Linked fantasy that so often passes for life now that we even start believing our own hype.’ But for parents it is not just the self but the offspring that can become the vehicle for ‘likeability’ and social affirmation.
In carefully curating digital images of our family lives it is almost as if we are pre-empting the ‘rosy view’ hypothesis – that we remember more positive events because negative aspects of the events recede or are re-evaluated – by deliberately excluding negative aspects from these representations in the first place. Rather than always selecting the ‘best’ pictures, however, we wonder whether we might also benefit from sharing photos taken at the same time everyday, no matter what. This could bring greater emotional variation to journaling activities such as #100happydays, enabling users to analyse negative feelings as well as savour positive ones. Going further, the Echo app (available for iOS and Android) encourages not just the recording, but also later reflection on digital media over time, in order to identify patterns of behaviour and how these could be improved [vi]. Of course, using an app on a personal device to reflect on one’s day-to-day life is a very different prospect to doing so on social networking sites, for the reasons already mentioned. And yet, imagine the possibilities for working through issues over an extended period, putting our experiences in perspective and ‘counting our blessings’, with other people (known and unknown to us), seeking to establish more meaningful connections of the sort that are maybe more common in offline life.
While it seems unlikely that any of us will be rushing to share all aspects of our less-than-perfect realities on Facebook anytime soon, it’s surely worth giving some serious thought to how we could change our current priorities. For instance, we can all become bogged down in the day-to-day managing of life and yet wish for time and opportunity to reflect on the wider world. What about a charity initiative that utilises social media to invite engagement with someone else’s situation and perspective on the world? It could be called ‘7 days of Reflection’. Each day a charity (perhaps Unicef, Oxfam or Red Cross) could highlight a current appeal as seen through the eyes of someone directly impacted in a post to your profile. There could be a voluntary donation button. Individuals could also nominate each other to take part. In this sort of way we could try to widen our perception and use social media not as a relentless vehicle for self-promotion but as a medium for positive personal and societal change.
[i] Johnson, Sophia Alice. “‘Maternal Devices’: Social Media and the Self-Management of Pregnancy, Mothering and Child Health.” Societies 4.2 (2014): 330-350.
[ii] Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. NYU Press, 2013.
[iii] Bartholomew, Mitchell K., et al. “New parents’ Facebook use at the transition to parenthood.” Family relations 61.3 (2012): 455-469.
[iv] Jang, Juyoung, and Jodi Dworkin. “Does social network site use matter for mothers? Implications for bonding and bridging capital.” Computers in Human Behavior 35 (2014): 489-495.
[v] Burkell, Jacquelyn et al. “Facebook: Public Space, or Private Space?” Information, Communication & Society 17.8 (2014): 974-985.
[vi] Isaacs, Ellen, et al. “Echoes from the past: how technology mediated reflection improves well-being.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2013. 1071-1080.