This question originally appeared on Quora: How has social media changed the way parents raise children? Answer by Koyel Bandyopadhyay, sociologist.
Do parents stop being parents on social media? Or do they take on other agendas?
Questions like these often lie at the heart of the debate regarding parents on social media. Parents today lie at a cross-roads of pre-social media and post-social media days; how they engage in parenting is evaluated not only on the benchmark of traditionalist perspectives on parenting, but also on more moral and ethical compasses of whether they are doing it “right.” Amid the whirlwind of debates in which parents assertively hold their ground—and people from the other camp (non-parents and parents with contrasting worldviews) wonder what is “going wrong”—the reality remains that many children’s personal lives have been brought to the public forefront.
It was only last night that a post from a female friend of mine popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. She was upset about other people ranting about race problems and posting kid pictures, in reaction to which, she wondered aloud: “What are they looking for? Praise?”
I thought the resulting debate wouldn’t end well, but well, it didn’t go to an extreme—the fire was doused.
Whenever we hear “social media and parents,” we think about parents posting about their children—information about what they drew last weekend, re-shared photos showing how they have grown up since last Christmas, funny things they said, how they wash the car with you on Sunday (and did you see that picture, and why didn’t you “like” it?)—in a nutshell, social media brings parenthood center stage, and puts the spotlight on giggling children, forever trapped in our digital footprints.
But there’s more to it than laughs. There’s good and there’s the grey.
This starts from the moment anybody is carrying a child, and chooses to share this news over social media. From sharing ultrasound pictures to participating in online mothering forums (like BabyCenter, Natural Mother, etc), people have a greater access to information, sharing, and a sense of community through social media than before. Moreover, this community is not dependent on the social compulsion of physical proximity, but is more organic in aligning you with people you actually like, match with, and get inspired by.
Yes, our parents (of pre-social media days) had a community, but it used to be a small community based on who was available in a physical space and time. Now, the world is a community-searcher’s oyster. By tapping into the pools of these virtual communities, parents also get in touch with “real life” communities. That is active networking, and a win-win situation for parents.
In my doctoral research, which actually focused on social participation and development of social networks, I came across women from different ethnic backgrounds and ages who were members of certain groups only because they were “mothers.” These mothers were from different cultures and backgrounds, and not only talked about how their babies smiled or the funny things their child said, but talked about different parenting styles from their own cultures. Sometimes this meant new resources for parents getting anxious about relentless thumb-sucking behavior, or looking for new ideas on potty-training, or thinking about good studying habits. Mothers talked about the kinds of food that could be given to a sick child, what to do when their child won’t listen to them, and why “time outs” weren’t really working. Mothers talked about what it entailed to be a “mother” in another culture.
All of these conversations were enabled by social media.
It’s no longer “That’s how it has always been done.” It is: “That’s how other people do it, and maybe we could try it.”
Whether it is teething trouble or teenager problems, parenting these days often includes encompassing child psychology. Parents want to know why their children did something—and in addition to asking them, parents will try to make sense of their actions through other kinds of information retrieved online. As for my mother, the deepest she ever dug was probably looking for my math exercise book to do a mental calculation on where I was positioned in the class ranking.
In the same culture I was raised in, but today, my hometown neighbor regularly peruses various forums, psychology magazine articles, and news articles on parenting. Social media has taken on the role of being an over-involved grandparent, making advice available whether or not you ask for it.
Parenting is a challenging task, especially in the western world where support for it is minimal and exists only in paid forms. This is probably also the reason why parents tend to overshare or engage in narcissistic, exhibitionist behavior like the “Facebook Motherhood Challenge” in which getting nominated or not could affect one’s self-esteem and consequent concerns: “Did I do it right?”
Self-doubts are part of walking along any challenging, unknown territory, but in the continuous over-sharing and relentless comparison culture of social media—where parents post report cards when their child scores high, the hand-painted greeting card received on Father’s Day, or the picture their 7-year-old took of them on their wedding anniversary—people are just exposing their soft spots and self-doubting capacities, worrying about whether their parenting is “perfect” or “better.”
Parents post more things on Facebook, than non-parents. Picture source: The Mobile State of Parenthood.
These days, children also get to know that their hand-made things are going to be products on social media; they remain eager to hear about their “likes” as well. Parenting becomes a competition, and children try to keep up with their parents’ ambitions. These competitions can become particularly important to adults who, in lieu of receiving affirmation from a workplace or other network, rely just on social media to receive some praise for the round-the-clock work they do as parents.
Receiving affirmations works great when going through rough times. However, sometimes the boundaries are grey—are they affirmations or are they validations? Why do we need to depend on them as we raise children?
These issues of affirmation and competition also percolate to children, who feel invested in their performative capacities, aspiring to be “perfect kids.” Exhibitionism means appearances must be put up—performing becomes a means of getting some validation.
Parental supervision can be oppressive—and this is more possible than in pre-internet days. Before the internet and cellphones, it was easy for kids to have some space from overprotective parents—parents were less able to hover and monitor.
Now, all parents need to stalk their children is a phone, some apps, and a mug of coffee.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing in the “more-dangerous-than-before” times in which we live today, but this definitely has an impact on how children are being raised, on the development of trust with children, and the development of self-reliance and individuality in them.
The constant ability to be in touch also puts a strain on face-to-face communication, because unlike in pre-internet days—where children had curfew times to re-enter homes and had to align their schedule to meet parents over meals—being in touch often spills over into negotiation done over the phone. Parents have gotten more lenient in having kids enjoy themselves and giving space—as long as they are traceable and are safe. On the other hand, this also means face-to-face communication gets cut down, where parents and kids can not only not see each other, but can also not read body language—this is the reality when communication happens through emojis.
There’s no “right” answer to whether social media is a good thing or a bad thing. Social media and people have this love-hate, symbiotic relationship. We love to condemn it when it makes us unhappy, and love to eulogize it in better situations. The reality remains: Social media is here to stay. It is on us to see how we can use it to our advantage, and keep the bitterness out of its consumption.