I was browsing my Facebook feed, enjoying pictures of my friends' kids, dogs, and vacations. And that's when I saw it: a close-up picture of a child's portable potty. The pint-size throne was bright red, plastic, and -- how to put this delicately? -- filled with tangible results.
"First time in the potty!" crowed the caption, written by the proud mother. The picture generated scores of thumbs up, and several comments -- "Woot woot!" "Such a relief for Mom!" -- celebrating this magical moment of which we were now all a part, whether we liked it or not.
And magical it might be; potty training is no small feat, as I'm learning myself these days. Yet no one said what I was thinking, and what others surely were thinking, which was "Seriously? Did you really just post that?"
Families used to be like Las Vegas -- what happened at home, stayed at home. For better or worse, previous generations of parents, and especially mothers, were expected to stay mum about their lives and sum up their daily frustrations with a smile and an "Everything is fine!" We modern-day parents, however, live in a world of updates and uploads on the minutiae of child rearing for a cast of hundreds, sometimes thousands, which includes everyone from close friends to coworkers to people we've met just once or twice, or not at all.
Not surprisingly, many parents think all this sharing has gotten a little out of hand. In an exclusive Parents survey of more than 2,000 respondents, 79 percent said other parents overshare on social media -- yet only 32 percent of us think we overshare ourselves. Hmm.
Of course, what's TMI in one parent's eyes may not be to another's. For example, 65 percent of parents think posting a picture of a kid in her underwear is not okay to post, which leaves room for plenty who think it's NBD.
What's more, we're only beginning to learn how this "oversharenting" might be affecting kids. This is the first generation to be born into the like-happy world of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And it's hard not to notice that children as young as 3 or 4 have become strangely adept at posing. There are those who have mastered a mini version of the so-called sorority squat: knees slightly bent, hands on top, smile perfectly frozen. And plenty more have perfected the sassy arm triangle: hand on hip, elbow jutted out. It's little wonder: Kids pick up on what their parents like, and Like, from a tender age. "Kids know, 'When I do something my mom likes or finds funny, she puts it on Instagram,' " says Judith Donath, author of the book The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online.
Although most parents came of age at a time when computer use was limited to fighting for a seat to play a few games at the family desktop, kids now are learning the power and reach of social media, where everyone can be her own star. "The emphasis on taking and uploading pictures, selfies--and in general the democratizing nature of YouTube -- make children aspire for fame much more than in prior years," says developmental psychologist Kaveri Subrahmanyam, Ph.D., director of the Media and Language Lab at California State University, Los Angeles. In one survey of kids ages 9 to 13 at UCLA Digital Media Center, kids who already had their own social-media accounts -- and 26 percent under 13 had a YouTube account -- craved fame more than those who didn't.
Incredibly, some children who aren't old enough to be out of booster seats yet are already asking how many "likes" a post about them got. Yet other kids may be mortified by their parents' sharing habits. "Our children have very different ideas of privacy," says Patrick Riccards, a father of two in Princeton, New Jersey. "Our son who's 9 cringes when he learns that we've put a picture of him on Facebook or that his aunt posted a baby picture of him on his birthday. He wants a life off the grid -- other than the life he's building for himself on Minecraft." Riccards says his daughter, 7, is completely different: "She is aching to get on social media. I'll take a picture or I'll laugh at something she says, and she immediately asks, 'Are you going to put that on Facebook?'. Then she asks what people say about her in the comments."
Of course, it's not just children who enjoy the attention. Some parents have been spilling all -- and even making big money doing so -- for years. There's the wildly popular Heather B. Armstrong, aka "Dooce," whose website reportedly brought in $30,000 to $50,000 a month with her blogging about everything from her leaky nursing boobs to her crippling postpartum depression. She recently dialed back from blogging to pursue other projects but also in part because she tired of online venomous attacks. In the past couple of years, we've seen the meteoric trending of the Holdernesses: Their 2013 video Christmas Jammies, featuring the photogenic family of four cavorting in their holiday-themed pajamas, went viral, racked up YouTube ad dollars, and was followed by more videos and a reality show. For their part, parents Penn and Kim seem unfettered by their critics. (Their tongue-in-cheek blog tagline: "We take ourselves very seriously.")
Still, all these seemingly innocent posts make me wonder: What are the kids going to think about them when they're older? "With our embrace of these incredibly powerful tools, we've been somewhat oblivious to the implications. A child's baby book used to sit on a bookshelf. Now what you post is essentially going on a billboard," says Parents advisor Michael Rich, M.D., director of the Center on Media and Child Health, Children's Hospital Boston. "Before posting, it would be good to consider, 'What's it going to be like when a child at 14 comes to a post or picture, for example of when he was a toddler and stuck in a cabinet and crying, and Mom or Dad, instead of coming to his aid right away, paused to take a funny picture for Instagram.' "
In the good old days, bragging had to be done in person, and there was a limit to who had to hear it. Now, the audience can be vast, and the brag itself elevated to an art form. Sixty-one percent of Parents' survey respondents believe parents brag too much on social media.
In addition to the outright boast about one's kids, there's also the "humblebrag," or gushing update cleverly designed to sound self-deprecating or dismissive. "Ugh! Can't believe we're going to have to get up at 4 tomorrow to make it to Adrienne's gymnastics competition. She won a gold medal last time, but still -- I'm going to be one tired mama!"
Of course there's a difference between posting the occasional burst of pride that would make any parent smile -- a kid's first steps, a big catch in a game, a tender moment between siblings -- and a daily barrage of updates. There are parents who seem suspiciously like they're trying to boost their own image ("Volunteering at school again! I am THAT mom"), while others have a knack for building their children up while casually knocking other people's kids down ("Jimmy made the varsity basketball team, NOT the JV team! Woot!").
While it's still too early to tell the long-term repercussions of all this sharing, experts say, they agree it can't be super-healthy for kids -- not simply because of what parents are posting, but because of what a time suck all that posting and scrolling can be. "Social media is wonderful in so many ways: We can share with family and friends around the world in an instant," says Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. "Where it becomes worrisome is when parents are pulling away from family life, lost in their smartphones and screens, leaving kids feeling neglected and lonely."
When we picture the quintessential 1950s housewife, we think of a mom happily smiling as she cooks, cleans, and raises perfect, good-looking kids. That perfect domestic diva might be a myth, but she'd be right at home on Facebook and Instagram today, where a certain type of parent seems determined to keep up with the Joneses virtually, posting an avalanche of perfectly photogenic shots of the family baking pies, taking walks on the beach in crisp color-coordinated outfits, and sharing a lazy -- yet somehow, perfectly art-directed -- Saturday morning at home eating lemon-ricotta blueberry pancakes made from a recipe found on Pinterest.
These would-be Donna Reeds might like you to believe their daily life is wholly without flaws. But you have to wonder: "Are the lives of all these shiny, happy families in our feeds really that perfect?" Our poll respondents don't think so: Sixty-seven percent think most parents aren't honest on social media about the realities of parenting. Perhaps because all of us are, to some extent, faking it.
One mother of three recounts the guilt she'd been feeling about getting home from work too late to eat with her family, much less whip up a meal for everyone. Meanwhile, a Facebook friend, also a mom, was posting photos that made her look like Nigella Lawson in training. "Pasta with roasted butternut squash and bacon. Poached chicken breasts stuffed with goat cheese and spinach, and so on," she recalls. "Then one day I ran into her husband on my way home and teasingly asked him what great meal awaited him that evening, and he said, 'Tonight? Probably McDonald's. We do that a couple of nights a week.'
"I couldn't believe it or that I'd let my imagination get so distorted by what I saw on Facebook," she says. "Of course that mom cut corners sometimes too -- she just didn't post about it."
Another mom admits she's a recovering poster of perfection. "I was always concerned with what my peers thought of me as a mother, wife, and woman. My posts were carefully chosen, making sure there was nothing unkempt in the background, my kids were perfectly dressed, that I looked good," says Vicky Lyashenko, of Portland Oregon, a mom of two boys, 6 and 4. "It took me a few years to get over myself and not care about what my peers thought of me." But so many moms are still there, notes Lyashenko: struggling with presenting their life as perfect as the other mom's life is on Instagram. It's a never-ending circle: whose house is the cleanest, whose kids are the cutest, whose hair is the prettiest, whose marriage is the most perfect. "But you never know what's behind the photo, and no mom has a perfect life," she says. "Some are just really good at telling their story in a flattering light, and it's very easy to do on social media."
Even though no parent's unaware that her posts are creating a digital footprint for her kids, it's still hard to resist sharing. Twenty-four percent of our survey respondents say they worry what they post will come back to haunt their child as a teen or an adult, while 32 percent have deleted a post about their child that they feared was oversharing.
One mom explains she had to rein herself in on social media when her kids, at 7 and 5, asked her to. "I'd show them something I shared and say, 'Look what Mommy posted about you! You're so cute in this picture!" says Ashley McGuire, an education specialist in San Diego. "My kids asked me who was seeing the things I posted, so I showed them the grandparents, friends' parents, and others I had in my social-media sphere. But they were never happy about having their personal stories and photos posted, and they asked me to stop. It occurred to me that even though my kids are an incredibly important part of my story, all of their stories aren't mine to tell. Now if there's something deliciously adorable I want to post and share with friends, I ask my kids' permission first. If they say no, I just don't share it."
The other morning, I was getting my toddler son dressed and, as he does most mornings, he fought my choice of sweater. He kicked and flailed as I attempted to wrestle him into the sweater, getting more frustrated and later for work by the minute, until we suddenly both collapsed laughing. His sweet toddler giggle rang through the house. There was no camera. Just a moment which, like so many in child raising, was silly and sweet, crazy and nonsensical. There is a simple beauty to these everyday moments, unseen by an audience. They generate no likes and are "shared" by the two people who matter most: parent and child.