We can all fall into the "looking good on Insta" trap. Until recently, I’ve been, like most parents I know, proud of my children, happy to share with friends and family the bright spots of our day, pictures of the happy times we have together.
At its best, of course, and the reason we like it, is social media creates connections between people and captures moments and memories we all love to share. There’s a lot going for it. But the truth is this is only part of the social media story. It doesn’t show the bad days.
When we post the latest picture of our children’s latest achievements, how often do we, as parents, point out that things are not always this way? That yesterday I was feeling really down, actually, that I cried myself to sleep with exhaustion, was worried sick about paying the bills, sleep-deprived and anxious about that visit to the hospital. Or that while I love my children, sometimes I just feel lonely and completely overwhelmed by the realities of being a parent.
There is now plenty of discussion about how harmful social media is for children, with its links to cyberbullying, sleep loss and lack of exercise. A recent study from Imperial College and University College London found children using social media sites multiple times a day raise their risk of psychological distress by around 40 per cent, compared to logging on weekly or less.
Isn’t it about time we also owned up to the impact social media has on parents at a time when they are particularly vulnerable, navigating all the new challenges that come with having young children? At Home-Start, the local community family support network, we know that many parents are feeling inadequate and doubting their ability to make their children happy. Much of this comes from comparing themselves to fellow mums and dads online. For parents going through a hard time, photos of holidays, children in pristine outfits and perfect days out play to all the insecurities a struggling parent is feeling, and can make them feel even more isolated and alone.
One of the mums Home-Start has supported admitted she has an area of her house she calls her "Instagram corner" – the only bit without mess.
Another mum, Octavia, who had a traumatic time with the birth of her twins told us she found social media to be a toxic source of anxiety and self-doubt about her ability as a mother: “I made a conscious effort to stay away from Facebook during this time. I found images of all my friends’ seemingly perfect families really difficult. Things that really got to me were holiday pictures and pictures of my friend’s children in lovely outfits. This seemed so far away from my experience that it left me feeling completely inadequate.
She’s not alone: our research shows six out of 10 parents feel pressure from social media to be the "perfect parent". Almost all think that fellow parents would delay asking for help if they were struggling. Over half say that fears of being seen as a bad parent would hold mums and dads back from asking for help.
We all know there’s no such thing as the perfect parent. So let’s end the façade. Let’s stop perpetuating a rose–tinted view of parenting on-line and start talking on social media about the challenges, as well as the joys, of being a parent.
Our #RealLifeParenting campaign is encouraging parents to share the realities of their lives – the downs as well as the ups. Currently, on average, parents struggle on alone for over 7 months before reaching out for support. If we can let parents know they’re not alone and reduce that wait by even a few weeks, we’ll have harnessed the power of social media to build a new kind of on-line support network that makes a very real difference for parents when they need it most.
Vivien Waterfield is deputy CEO of Home-Start UK
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