Did you know that Facebook is the scourge of modern parenting – and modern motherhood in particular? There’s a new campaign that encourages mothers to turn off the social networking site and play with their kids. The campaign is called “The Log Off“, and it’s built entirely around a 47 second long YouTube video.
This is not the first example of backlash against moms who spend a lot of time on social networking sites. I’ve seen articles about parents ignoring kids in favour of their smart phones, and I’ve witnessed an uproar when a mother tweeted, asking for prayers as paramedics worked on her dying son. And while dads do face questions about balancing social media and family, I definitely feel that the censure is focused mostly in the direction of mothers. I think that Annie at PhD in Parenting would call this another example of blaming the mother.
In fairness, there are some extreme examples of parents who have let their social media use get in the way of sound parenting. The most egregious example is a mother who played a game on Facebook, leaving her 13-month-old alone in a full bathtub. The toddler drowned, and she was been sentenced to spend 10 years in prison. I think that pretty much any parent would agree that leaving a toddler alone in the tub for any reason is a phenomenally bad idea. And I would argue that this is an extreme example, which is not characteristic of the way most people use Facebook.
Maybe I feel a little bit defensive, though, because I am very active online, myself. I’m all over Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Flickr. But I also think that I am an attentive and responsible parent. And I’m not sure sure that social media is particularly unique in terms of its parenting impact. Much of the discussion surrounding parents and social networking is simply a re-hashing of old ideas. In the 1980s when I was a kid, for instance, we might have exhorted those mothers in that video to turn off their soap operas to play with their kids. But this argument is much older than TV, even.
I am a Canadian, and I enjoy historical fiction. This means that as a child I read the entire Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery about 17 times. There’s an exchange in the fourth book, Anne’s House of Dreams, that echoes a lot of the sentiments you might hear about social media. Anne, her best friend Diana, and the much older neighbourhood busybody Rachel Lynde talk as they prepare for Anne’s wedding. Diana tells Anne she couldn’t have had a nicer day if she’d ordered it from Eaton’s. Here’s an excerpt:
“Indeed, there’s too much money going out of this Island to that same Eaton’s,” said Mrs. Lynde indignantly … “And as for those catalogues of theirs, they’re the Avonlea girls’ Bible now, that’s what. They pore over them on Sundays instead of studying the Holy Scriptures.”
“Well, they’re splendid to amuse children with,” said Diana. “Fred and Small Anne look at the pictures by the hour.”
“I amused ten children without the aid of the Eaton’s catalogue,” said Mrs. Rachel severely.
Anne’s House of Dreams was first published in 1917, approximately 30 years after the first Eaton’s catalogue made its debut. So when the venerable Lucy Maud wrote this exchange, it was from the vantage point of someone looking back and reflecting on long-dead concerns. By the time 1917 rolled around, no one would have thought that the Eaton’s catalogue was going to be the death of the modern family. But underlying that exchange between Rachel Lynde and Diana, we see a lot of the same arguments that we see today about social media use.
And that, to me, is the crux of things. Social media is not unique, it is just another innovation that we are learning how to use. Can it be used to excess? Certainly. Is it going to rip our families apart and destroy any actual human connection? I would argue that it is not, just as previous innovations have not.
But let’s come back to that whole “you’re ignoring your kids!” argument. Because this is the accusation that underlies criticisms of parental social media use, or the mothers of the 1980s who were too busy watching All My Children to watch their own children, or the mothers of 120 years ago who were using that new-fangled Eaton’s catalogue as a babysitter. It’s at the heart of pretty much every guilt trip we level at mothers who do anything other than gaze lovingly at their progeny all day long. Are we ignoring our kids? And if so, is it actually harming them?
Research suggests that we are spending more time with our children than our parents spent with us. A UK study found that fathers averaged 32 to 36 minutes a day on their children in 2000, but just three to eight minutes in 1975, and mothers averaged 51 to 86 minutes a day with their kids in 2000, but just eight to 21 minutes a day in 1975. And this makes sense, if you think about the way that we restrict our children’s freedom today. When our mothers sent us outside to play until it got dark, they weren’t exactly engaging with us.
But I don’t think that leaving kids to their own devices is so terrible. Ignoring your children from time to time may teach them valuable skills, like how to entertain themselves. Of course, we need to be ever mindful of safety, but I don’t believe that letting my kids play in my fenced backyard while I watch them from my computer desk and write is negligence. I believe I’m just doing what parents have always done – caring for children while also going about the business of living to the best of my ability.
So you’ll all have to excuse me if I fail to feel phenomenally guilty for my Facebook use. I have enough guilt on my plate already, and I refuse to accept any more.
I wonder what you think. Do you think that Facebook and other social networking sites are the scourge of modern parenting? How do you set reasonable limits for yourself so that you’re not ignoring your kids too much? And do you think that ignoring your kids a little bit is good or bad for them? Please weigh in!