Keeping It Real: Parenting in the Age of Social Media

Social Media
I was driving Girl 2 to track practice the other day when, in my peripheral vision, I caught her going into what looked to be some sort of medical distress. She had her phone up, was making faces and – I don’t know how else to put it – twitching. When I realized what she was doing, I groaned, rolled my eyes and said, “STOP Snapchatting. You look like you’re having a seizure.” Which she filmed and immediately Snapchatted to all of her friends.

This is how it pretty much how it always goes. I rarely see my kids, or their friends, without their phones in hand. Every event is snapped, chatted and broadcast in detail. Everyone knows where everyone else is, who they’re with and what they’re thinking. It’s intense.

When I was a kid, there were two ways to get information to your friends when you weren’t with them in person. First, you could call them on the phone. And by the phone, I mean THE phone. The one and only line in the house, where you would ask whoever answered if your friend was home, wait while they were summoned, then hope that your mother wouldn’t pick up mid-way through your conversation and tell you it was time to get off because you were tying up the line.

The second, slightly riskier, method was to pass a note during class. The main problems with this method were 1) you had to know how to fold the note in clever little origami shapes with pull tabs and 2) you had to risk all of that painful folding being intercepted by a teacher and publicly read. Notes did not come with thumbprint protection.

And if I had needed to post pictures constantly throughout my day as a teenager? Let’s just say there would have been a lot of images of me contemplating teen angst while listening to Mazzy Star, readjusting my Bon Jovi and Kirk Cameron posters and trying desperately to peg my jeans properly. And bangs. There would have been a lot of bangs. But I still thought I was pretty cool, especially when I was alone.

What I’ve realized is that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and countless other apps, platforms and social media outlets have not only changed the way we interact, they’ve changed how we shape our identities. I’m not saying that there wasn’t peer pressure when I was a kid. There was. I spent many a long hour with Teen Magazine wondering why I wasn’t as pretty as Molly Ringwald, but I had down time. I could be invisible when I wanted – or needed—to be and in those moments I didn’t have to compare myself to anyone…other than Molly Ringwald.

The days of shutting down and zoning out seem long gone. Our entire sense of identity is formed around the people we are online – and its as if we don’t exist if we don’t keep those media outlets updated at all times. Unfortunately, the pressure to make those posts not only frequent, but perfect, is overwhelming. And this is because how we perceive ourselves and our families is all too often determined by how our posts are received.

Kids these days get a bad rap for their dependence on social media. There have been countless studies and articles examining the narcissism of Generation Y and Generation Z…those kids who came of age or were born at the turn of the millennium.  These are the kids that broadcast their lives in a series of posts, pictures and snippets intended to let the world know who they are, where they are and what they’re doing at every moment.

But as parents, how many of us have fallen into the trap, too? How often do we watch our children’s lives through the lens of a camera, or even more likely, the screen of our cell phone? We feel the same pressure to capture every moment so that we can show the world how great we are doing as parents. How involved our kids are in activities. How much FUN we’re having with everything in life. While the moments themselves might be real, who are we really posting them for? Are we really just showing others snapshots of our lives, or are we trying to convince ourselves that everything is better than it feels on a daily basis?

The other day, I was flipping through my Facebook and in the midst of all of the perfect holiday pictures, I finally saw one that made sense. After seeing countless images of my friends’ kids sitting sweetly on Santa’s lap, there was one of my old college friends standing just inside the frame, a screaming toddler in her arms. Said toddler was held in full airplane pose, arms and legs flailing while my friend barely hung on. Her older kid was on Santa’s lap, clearly earning his spot on the “nice” list.  Santa just looked confused.

“Now, this,” I thought, “is a Santa picture I can get behind.”

If I were to pull out my kids’ Santa photos from the pre-Facebook years, there would be few in which I was not in the picture. Every year, it would take my last reserve of holiday cheer to get my kids TO Santa, at which point they would scream, plot hostile North Pole takeovers and usually try to do a runner. Inevitably, I would end up in the photo, clad in whatever had been the cleanest shirt in the dirty pile and wearing a smile that only thinly masked my obvious lack of will to live. But that was my life. It was not perfect, it was not clean and it definitely was not Facebook worthy.

All too often, even as parents, we post images online with the subconscious, or perhaps conscious, hope that we will get “liked.” We check back to see who has given us that coveted thumbs up, to read the comments and to feed on the gratification that is, quite validly, provided by our online following. And there’s nothing wrong with this in principle. It feels good to share and be recognized. But like everything we do as parents, we have to think about how it is affecting our kids and make sure that we are setting healthy and happy examples.

I was so grateful for my friend’s Santa portrait, not because it made me feel better about my own, but because it was not from a series of 12 with only the best one selected and posted. Even the smallest of kids these days know when a phone is pulled out that they had better do their best sorority girls pose, elbows popped out and fake grin plastered on. They know what filters are best. They ask to see the photo immediately so they can deem it worthy for publication.

I watch my daughters spend hours looking at their friends’ pictures, pictures that have been angled just right and highlighted with an unrealistic filter or show “everyone” hanging out without them. I see them feel less about themselves and often, left out. I want to scream,

“THIS IS NOT REAL!” at least five times a day. I want them to know that everyone has bad hair days. Everyone feels left out sometimes. And filters don’t change who we are on the inside.

In a world where teen anxiety and depression seems ever on the rise, I worry about my girls in a way that I hope my own mother never worried about me. They are constantly confronted with false perceptions of reality. But teaching them what’s real and what isn’t starts with me. I may not tweet or snap…or even chat…but if I go back through my own online presence, the only photos that make the cut are the ones where my crow’s feet are less visible, my smile is just right and maybe, just maybe, I look less than my 40 years. And I am all too guilty of deeming my own worthiness based on how many likes, followers and comments I receive.

I love the connectivity that social media provides, especially with friends and family who are far away. But my job as a parent in the age of social media is to teach my children that there is difference between peace and invisibility. Sometimes it’s ok to just “be” without the eyes of the world on you. I want them to know that the best life is one that is touched, felt, listened to and experienced in person, not on a screen. I want them to know that filters and camera angles aren’t what makes them beautiful, but that it’s the way they love one another and show daily kindness that will always turn every head in the room.

In a world where our friendships often rely on virtual interaction and our identities are determined by profile pictures, we must strive to be real in our communication, both in person and online. We must stop demanding constant perfection from our photos, our posts and our selves. In doing so we can teach our children how to be who they are, not who the world pressures them to be. Or we’ll all just start posting really awful photos. Either way, I think it makes the world, virtual or otherwise, a much happier place to live.

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