There is this trend on the internet and social media now that I find to be especially terrifying.
I started noticing how much anxiety it caused me, because it started pushing my “run and hide” buttons last fall.
Incidentally, I have found that this same exact issue trending with equal force among the nefarious world of motherhood/parenthood that my husband and I are ever so cautiously dipping our toes into.
Even with all our excitement and the love we feel for this little baby growing daily, and even with all the support we know we have around us — it is hard for me to not look up and grow anxious as I try to figure out exactly how I will deal with this trend and what role it will play in my own experiences as a mother and a parent.
This trend I keep vaguely referring to? Its outraged, unfiltered interaction.
As psychologist, Dr. Kelly Flanagan recently wrote about this trend on the internet,
Electronic communication is like a teenager.
And it’s doing what all teenagers do: it’s getting angry.
Online, we’re acting like right and wrong is obvious and what we believe is obviously right. Like uniformity is the only valid kind of community. Like someone else’s opinion is a direct threat to the validity of our own. Like it’s our job to be unwavering. Like talking back is the only way to talk. Like the only way to be yourself is to shout down all other selves.
I see this kind of interaction everywhere online and in my social media feeds. Its like an explosion of sensational, emotional, erratic, unfiltered, unchecked, uncivil, and out-of-control behavior.
Being online gives us just enough distance to not only think whatever we want, but to say and respond in whatever immediate way we want to by the mere click of a button and a few keys.
We can post emoticons that tell the world how we are feeling in that exact moment, no matter who or how it may impact someone else.
We can push our personal frustrations or relationships into the public sphere by posting about them, where suddenly the whole world now knows a bite-sized and heavily biased picture of some tension or issue you have with another person.
We create feeds that are mere echo chambers of our own thoughts, opinions, and ideas. We do this by incessantly using the like buttons that drive social media algorithms to fill our feeds with more of the same, and using the unfollow, mute, and block buttons at our disposal to immediately remove anyone or anyone’s content that we dislike, disagree with, or makes us in any way uncomfortable.
Some refer to this aspect of human nature as tribalism, which is essentially the idea that we are attracted to and often surround ourselves with people who act and think just like us–people who we connect with and feel most comfortable with.
History shows though that tribalism at its worst destroys us through vices such as xenophobia, racism, classism, sexism, and so forth time and time again.
But even on a smaller and less harmful scale, most of us have to wrestle with our knee-jerk reaction to “difference” and our own tribalist tendencies as a part of our maturation process when we leave home and grow up.
For most of us, it is only by going out in the world and opening ourselves and our minds to new ideas, new perspectives, and others different from ourselves that we find that “difference” can actually be a very good thing and that nothing is as simple and black and white as we once thought it was when we were children and thought we knew everything.
My young adult life for a very long time has been about recognizing and unlearning my deeply ingrained judgement and fear of others, as I grew up in a faith and a community that required dogmatic conformity and exclusion of anyone different.
The problem is, as Dr. Flanagan discusses, the internet and social media has yet to grow up. Instead it is this vast machine encouraging all of us to go backwards and act like our immature, unthinking, insecure, know-it-all teenage version of ourselves.
For those of you who went to school, do you remember that aspect of high school? The in-crowd and the outsiders? The constant us versus them?
Homeschoolers have their own weird versions of clicks too.
So do we really want to go back to that? Are we seriously ok with this?
No wonder I have thought about running away.
I have been spending the past few months trying to figure out what to do with this aspect of online culture that seems to be pervading my every feed and social media experience.
As I was contemplating this the other morning, the thought occurred to me that the same emotional anxiety I feel towards social media and online culture right now is almost exactly the same anxiety I feel towards entering the parenting world.
Suddenly I began seeing that the trends and similarities between the two were uncanny.
You see, today there is this unspoken and universal behavior connected to parenting that I had heard about, but am now realizing is more prevalent than ever.
In the parenting world, this outraged behavior and unfiltered social interaction comes in the form of free advice, unasked-for opinions, spot correction, judgment (implied and directly given), jumping to conclusions, and assuming sheer ignorance or the worst about people’s parenting skills and motives.
Somehow this is excusable when it concerns pregnancy, parents, and any decision they are making about raising their kids.
Sometimes its laughable and other times its utterly maddening.
Since becoming pregnant I have been told all kinds of things by all kinds of well-meaning people, whether they knew me or not.
I have had people ask me “why are you worrying about a future career and employment options, as you are going to be a mom now and your husband has a good job, so why would you even need to work…”
Advice given with well-meaning intent and assumptions I’m sure. Never mind however that it is advice completely ignorant of my own reasoning or my husband’s opinion on me working, as well as devoid of knowing the context of our own personal finances that only we know and can determine whether it is in our family’s best economic interest for me to work or not work.
Being my first pregnancy and being tall for a woman, I have only begun to really show in the past few weeks, half-way through my pregnancy–so this has brought on an unending commentary about how “you don’t even look pregnant” and “I wish I looked like you now and I’m not even pregnant…” leaving me clueless as how to respond without digging into the unwanted, ugly hole of comparison even further.
My most recent encounter was at the dentist, which I must say is totally not fair because A) they have a captive audience and B) how are you ever supposed to respond with someone’s hands and awful metal tools in your mouth?
Here I was told never to feed my child apple juice as they will obviously like it and it is just too acidic and will ruin them forever. Ok so a dentist passionate about oral health–ok I guess that makes sense.
But then it went from there, to a commentary that given my due date being in June that I should obviously hold my child back a year and enter them in school at an older age. I left the dentist later scratching my head and licking my newly clean, but weirdly-rough teeth wondering just exactly how did being a dentist qualify that advice?
My friends tell me though that this phenomenon only begins with pregnancy and continues to worsen once your children are born.
I’ve had friends constantly endure commentary on their appearance for the opposite reasons as, namely how big their belly is. Because that is just what every pregnant woman wants to be reminded of — how abnormally huge they are.
Other friends have had perfect strangers approach them in public and accost them with advice or opinions on what they are doing with their infant and how it is wrong.
Ever heard of the “mommy wars”? Want to see the worst of these two worlds collide? Just go read social media comment feeds on any article containing parenting advice.
Want to get all kinds of people to interact on your social media? Ask a parenting question on FB.
Want to get publicly accosted and given all kinds of disapproving looks and commentary as a mother? Try breastfeeding in public, with or without a cover.
I would argue that there are very few other settings in our current daily, social life than the online/social media forums or settings involving commentary to or about parents and their childrearing decisions, where there is little social consequence for freely sharing your mind without having any critical thought, considering context, or practicing any empathy.
What’s even more scary is that these trends are not just some problem everyone else seems to struggle with and I have to endure. If I were to make this everyone else’s problem than I am the worst kind of hypocrite highlighting everyone else’s worst interaction tendencies, while avoiding the plank of my own.
As I have begun to read and ponder about the effects of outrage and unfiltered emotional commentary taking over the internet and parenting conversations, I have had to realize I am just as complicit and active in promoting and participating in these cultural trends.
How many times have I unthinkingly or knowingly commented, posted, or interacted online in a way that I would probably be hesitant to do to someone’s face?
Having grown up in a large family with several younger siblings and in a homeschooling community with lots of other large families, taking care of babies and toddlers and children is something I am very familiar with and have a lot of experience in.
How many times though have I spoken my opinions and observations on children with other people without being asked for it? How many times have I expressed an opinion after observing some stranger with their kid and made an instantaneous judgment with no understanding of their context or without any empathy that I might have for a friend or someone I know?
The answer again sadly is plenty.
I found it really convicting to read one of my favorite authors Glennon Melton’s admonition on this recently when speaking to how we should act online:
You don’t use social media as a weapon.
You don’t use it to prove your belonging.
You THINK about how what you post will make others FEEL.
Not how it SHOULD or SHOULD NOT make them feel- but how it WILL make them feel.
Just because they’re human.
If you’re not kind on the internet, then you’re not kind.
If you’re not thoughtful on the internet, then you’re not thoughtful.
Ouch. But she has a point.
What if we did this online?
What if we did this with parents we observe and interact with, whether we know them or not?
What if we stopped for just a moment and filtered our thoughts and opinions through context, through kindness, through empathy?
If we did consider all those things, if we asked ourselves even just the simplest question of “is this kind and respectful” how would our conversations online and in person about important things like raising our children look differently?
If people speak criticism or opinions or advice, it is usually from this place of well-meaning intent of wanting others to listen and either agree or change their differing opinion to at least a place of understanding. The reality is though, given the current common method of just speaking without thinking, sharing without being asked, or shouting at each other and finding others out there to echo that same chorus back to us–there is actually very little actual conversation and change occurring.
True conversation and interaction requires engagement, listening, and consideration from all parties involved.
It requires understanding, not just a din of noise echoing back and forth.
Instead of passively aggressively posting those links to articles we so badly want others to read that we think would just be so good for them, but in reality are instantly dismissed by anyone uninterested or offended or merely liked by our own echo chambers — is there another way to use our online lives to better participate in and teach social engagement and conversation that matters?
Instead of judging that mom with the tantrum-throwing toddler in the grocery store or offering our oh-so- great parenting advice (even if it stems from experience and a place of well-meaning intent) without being asked for it, can we step back and start engaging with parents around us in a different way?
Maybe instead of following the popular trend of reverting back to adolescent behavior in our interactions online or with fellow parents, we could start teaching the many adolescents that are now increasingly engaging online and observing us in our interactions, how this standard and model is not working and how to make it better.
Online harassment and bullying are becoming all too common of a problem, among adults and children.
Mommy shaming and parent shaming, I fear is not far behind, as we all jump to conclusions and think before we speak without extending any grace.
As a brand new mom and a young adult engaging frequently with the world around me through various online forms–I need to find a better way forward.
Otherwise, the online world and parenting world continuing to develop as they currently exist terrify me and will push me to become someone I don’t want to be.
A struggling new mama,
- What are some ideas for how we could better engage online and with other parents with more civility, more empathy, and context in mind?
- How do we reach for the goal of better engagement and quality conversation online without stifling expression but also recognizing the need for healthy boundaries? Essentially is there another extreme opposite of these trends that we need to avoid too? Where is the balance?
- In today’s society, there is less concern for tact or grace when we fear someone else’s child is a) in danger of some harm or b) acting in a manner considered socially inappropriate or unacceptable — so at what point do we draw the line? When is speaking out ok? When are we speaking too hastily and without empathy or context in mind?