From rueful photographs posted to Facebook of toddlers beating their fists on the floor of the local supermarket, to the affectionately ironic Twitter hashtag #reasonsmykidiscrying, we are in the grip of a whole new phase of public parenting. At best, it serves as an outlet for warmth and the wry appreciation that we aren’t alone, every ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ an expression of solidarity to help us navigate the baffling, irrational and disproportionate emotions of tiny humans. But there’s a darker side to our social media-documented caregiving, too – and it’s one that can’t be laughed at or ‘favourited’ quite so easily. We walk an ever-constant fine line between pride… and publicly shaming our children.
I’m as guilty as anyone else at pointing out the glad, sad – and, frankly, mad – behaviours of my three-year-old on social media, from the meltdown she had this weekend when I asked her what she wanted for breakfast (granola, topped with Coco Pops) and I gave it to her, exactly as she’d asked; to the tantrum so fierce that she gave herself a nosebleed because I asked her to take her coat off before she went to bed. I gleefully documented the wails and cries prompted by my not letting her wear flip-flops in the snow via a throwaway one-liner on Twitter; and posted a snap to Instagram of her sweet face – contorted with hysterical rage – when I ate the lemon cupcake she had expressly commanded me to eat just moments before.
But there’s a difference, not least to do with the relative ‘safety’ I feel thanks to my tightly-controlled online privacy settings, in celebrating childhood – compared to taking it a step too far.
Take the father who forced his eight-year-old daughter to stand outside her school wearing a home-made sign which read, “I like to steal from others and lie about it!”; or the punishment doled out by Jose Lagares, who gave his nine-year-old son a sign to wear which shouted, “I am a bully. Honk if you hate bullies”; and the humiliation of 12-year-old Jose Gonzales, ordered to stand on a street corner in Denver with a notice which read, “I am a thief. I took money from a family member.“ Think of the trials those children will have to overcome five years later, when they try to win over prospective employers and are swamped with viral footage of their shame.
Then there’s the video posted to Facebook by Val Starks in Colorado, just this week. Incensed by the discovery that her 13-year-old daughter had set up an online profile in which she claimed to be 19, and posed for a photograph in her bra, Ms Starks launched a blistering, five-minute tirade, which showed her daughter crying and being forced to repeat her real age – as well as personal and embarrassing details – to the camera. That video has been viewed by 11 million people.
Footage like this gathers mixed reviews, ranging from: “This is parenting done right!”, and: ”Great loving Mom! Say thank you child, someday you will understand and love your Mom for what she did”. Others label it “humiliation” and voice concerns about the long-term psychological impact the video may have on the girl later. Ms Starks, who posted a second video thanking her supporters and saying she had been “overwhelmed with gratitude”, insists it is merely an example of “tough love”.
But tough love, even if borne of the instinct to protect your child, can still be misguided. And lecturing young people about the perils of leaving a damaging digital footprint – while leaving your own, very damaging digital footprint on their behalf – is no more an example of ‘good parenting’ than that shown by those who hit their kids, while trying to teach them the lesson that violence is wrong.
It’s evident that we need to tackle what kids share online – last October, anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label found 37 per cent of just under 1,000 13 to 25-year olds had sent a naked photo of themselves to another person and 13 per cent of them felt ‘pressured into doing it’. At the same time, digital abuse charity Cybersmile says it has seen an increase of around 20 per cent in the number of inquiries it's received about cyber-bullying and sexting in the UK in the past year.
But we need to find a better way of tackling it than by calling out our children. Don’t want them to become a bully? Don’t bully them, then, either. At home, or in front of 11 million viewers on Facebook.
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