Every morning before her daughter, Leah, went off to school, Samantha pulled out her phone to snap a photo of Leah’s outfit, or her triple French braids, or the from-scratch blueberry buckwheat pancakes Samantha had whipped up for breakfast. Then she’d post the photo to Facebook and Instagram and wait for the “likes” to come in. Part of the habit, Samantha told me, was about chronicling Leah’s childhood, a way to create a sort of journal in photographs, if an entirely public one. But Samantha also liked the idea of sharing these well-choreographed moments, which were, she admitted, “part-real, part-staged” with others. “It makes me feel connected to people beyond the world inside my house,” she told me. “Also, seeing my life look so nice in photos, and getting feedback to the same effect, can be undeniably affirming. Whenever things are going wrong, I think, well, how bad could it be when it looks so nice?”
Social media has provided a platform for parents—moms, mostly, though not exclusively—to give each other a birds’ eye view into their day-to-day lives: victories, defeats, and everything in between. “Mommy blogs,” as a content category, sprung up as more and more mothers took to the Internet to share their particular views on parenting. Lately, those views have turned decidedly aesthetic, with the images of raising kids these parents have to offer becoming as important as their opinions on the subject. This can be seen in a wave of super-stylized parenting blogs like Romy & the Bunnies, Rip + Tan, and A Little Muse, where discussions about the best ways to reduce stretchmarks might run alongside reviews of the latest Alexander Wang collection. The accompanying magazine-worthy photographs result in a sort of fantastical, soft-filtered, high-glam view of parenting.
This take isn’t unique to blogging, of course. All over Facebook, Instagram, and video sharing site Vine, parents like Samantha project a certain image that could be argued is more about affirmation than information. The kids, meanwhile, become pseudo celebrities. In June, New York magazine’s fashion blog The Cut called Alfonso Mateo, a whose mom dresses him in bow ties and aviators then posts the photos online, an “Instagram style icon.” At five years old, he has nearly 50,000 followers on the photo-sharing site.
Of course, parenting isn’t always—or maybe even ever—as glamorous as these outlets may suggest. While many who follow these social media accounts realize that what they’re seeing is as much about art and image than stone cold reality, these images can still serve to make some parents feel inadequate. Studies have proven that Facebook and other forms of social media can lead to depression and anxiety, including one earlier this year that found that one in three Facebook users felt worse after visiting the site. A recent survey by online information portal MyLife.com, meanwhile, found that 56 percent of social media users suffer from fear of missing out, a phenomenon so common it’s already got its own acronym: FOMO.
That’s a warning for followers of hyper-stylized online parenting content. But posters should beware, too. Uploading perfect image after perfect image can create unnecessary worry when, off camera, things get a little less photogenic. View enough soft-filtered photos of idealistic family life and it can be easy to forget that what you’re seeing isn’t real, even if you’re the one generating it. Samantha began to find that she’d get especially anxious when Leah threw a tantrum, or if she hadn’t had a chance to clean the kitchen that day (never mind buy fresh flowers), as if someone was always watching, and judging. “I got so upset when Leah threw a tantrum because I worried what that said about me, what people would think, even when we were at home alone and I’d been the only witness,” Samantha said. “And more than once I caught myself rearranging Leah’s toys and fixing her hair before I took a ‘candid’ shot of her playing, even if I never planned to post it. I had set a sort of personal standard for how I thought my life should look.”
Of course, growing up in such a visual world—where kids are online in some way from nearly the moment they’re born—may affect their development in ways we can’t yet know. Already, studies have found that more than 90 percent of Americans have an online history by the time they’re two, and that too much multimedia content has been linked in some kids to limited attention span, poor focus, lower comprehension, and a greater risk for depression. What’s more, social media may cause kids to place more value on being famous.
But for parents, the dilemma is, ultimately, age-old: No matter how, or where, it shows up, too much emphasis on what other people think, or how things look, can get in the way of parenting. Being a good parent is often about learning to balance internal pressures with the sort of external ones that mainly serve to undermine your confidence. These pressures exist even without the 24/7 attack of social media; with social media, they’re heightened even further. Once Samantha realized that her involvement online was actually making her more stressed—and less present with her daughter—she limited her posts to one a week, at most, even though at first she worried that her disappearance would raise eyebrows among her followers. “I wanted everyone to think I was doing a great job, but that got in the way of actually doing a great job,” said Samantha. “It was just an image.”