Thursday, May 29, 2014

Facebook = Bragbook?

I don't remember what prompted this conversation, but I was visiting with my mom several years ago and she told me about a moment from my childhood that made her change the way she talked about my siblings and me. It was 1983ish and she was sitting at our neighbor's house having coffee with the mom of the family and sharing my recent accomplishments at elementary school. When she got home after that coffee chat, she said she felt bad about going on about how well I was doing. She decided not to do that anymore. That admission from my mom stuck with me. I appreciate the fact that she consciously was not boastful. I knew my parents were proud of us, but they never slapped those honor student bumper stickers on their cars and did not make big public declarations about our other achievements. And now I'm wondering if I am guilty of the same kid-bragging problem. Why? Because of Facebook.

In the past two days, I have shared with the Facebook world my daughter's achievements in softball and in school. This is not standard for me, I don't think. I post silly things my kids say and do and sometimes share special moments that give me the warm mom fuzzies, but I try not to focus online on grades and honors and other such "pride goeth before the mommy fall" kind of stuff. I don't even put that much stock in grades, particularly those earned by a second grader. And now I feel like my mom did after that cup of coffee.

I could justify my reasons. My closest blood relative lives five hours away (hi, Caroline!) and most of them live twelve or more hours away. Facebook offers a nice way to reach everyone and I am just as excited to see what is going on with my cousins' children (some of whom I've never actually met) and other members of my family. Also, to be honest, I feel like I have developed a community of friends on Facebook. Most of this group consists of in-the-flesh friends I had before the internet was a part of our lives, but also more recent and treasured connections. I've appreciated their support over the past several years.

And, there is the fact that sometimes I don't even think about the notion that other people might be paying attention. I enjoy writing on Facebook because I simply love writing whenever I can and Facebook offers one outlet to craft short messages for fun when that is all my schedule will allow. (And as an editor, I have deleted multiple status updates after going back and just not being pleased with the way the words flowed.) Facebook has become somewhat of an online journal with no real expectation on my part that anyone will read it (and I'm sure that most of those listed among my "friend" count never do). Every so often I go back and print out the funny stories I share about the kids and place them in their memento boxes (in true first-child fashion, the girl has a much more impressive set of keepsakes than the boy . . . he does have a nice baby book, though, that will be a special piece of history for him to look through if I ever get around to writing in it, likely rounding off to the nearest year when cataloguing the date of his first tooth). But you know what? I could go back to writing those stories in an actual journal made of paper, like I did so often after my daughter was born.

But, at the same time, Facebook is also not really a journal. I write often on Facebook, but never about anything super personal. While I've posted stories about being a single mom, I've never written about the circumstances of my divorce or about my ex-husband. (Oh, and I cringe when I see friends who do that fresh out of a relationship. Your kids see that. It never really goes away.) To those going through a divorce, here is my advice -- Buy a cheap spiral notebook. Write furiously in it. Read it a year later and realize how far you've come (hopefully). Then burn it. I also choose not to share information about my doctors' appointments or medical concerns. I don't let it be known on Facebook when a friend has disappointed me (people or government or circumstances in general, yes, but I don't expose specific relationships). I don't (OK, try not to) judge people who do share in such a manner on Facebook, and even understand why it would be therapeutic or reassuring to put your concerns on display and get instantaneous feedback, but I choose not divulge such details.

I am also positive of this -- I don't share the accomplishments of my kids to cultivate the appearance of an awesome little family and home life. That is what Facebook is often guilty of, right? Just posting the good stuff to make it seem like we have it all together. I'm more than willing to share right here that my house is a little messy, I don't get enough sleep or exercise, I ate three large pieces of angel food cake for dinner earlier this week and nothing else, I wake up lacking patience and this problem only gets worse by the evening, and I'm disorganized (I pay more than my share of late fees on bills not because I don't have the money to pay them on time . . . I just forget).  But with my kids, I don't want to share their individual struggles and our collective struggles as a family (unless it's a ridiculous sibling quarrel, as those are just amusing). My kids have the right to privacy regarding the details of battles with behavior issues, and we certainly have them because they are eight and four years old and that is part of life. They have the right not be defined by embarrassing or sad or negative moments as part of their permanent online record.

Which brings me to a posting by one of my friends about a year ago that I have come back to time and again. She decided not to share any more photographs or stories about her kids online. Not because she is afraid some child predator will see their precious young faces and track them down. Instead, she made that decision because she wanted to give her kids the opportunity to develop and share their own identity as they grow into young men and women, and not to have it defined by hundreds of photographs and anecdotes that captured every step of their childhood. Kids today are going to become adults with an unprecedented digital resume, most of which they did not create themselves. When my daughter is twenty, her friends will be able to search the internet and find out what she did and how she looked and what she said when she was eight. No matter how private we think we keep our settings, some of that information is always going to be out there. Maybe it would be better if all such stuff was kept in one embarrassing photo album that I could pull out at just the right moment, like in the good old days.

I have no doubt that there are hundreds of doctoral theses dedicated to the psychology of social media. Why do people feel the need to post selfies incessantly? (I have never even taken a selfie as I'm sure such photographic tricks would only make me look more tired than I know I already appear in real life. In fact, I am pretty sure I can count on my hands the number of times I have been photographed by any means since my second kid was born.) Why do people want to "live tweet" some of the most intimate and/or sad moments of their lives? How is a person's self-worth determined by the number of "friends" they have online? All of these are fascinating questions and speak to the state of our happiness and longing for sense of community in this new online age.

And now the past forty-eight hours or so have revived my own thinking about how I use social media, and more specifically Facebook. I've gone through these periods of questioning before, even throwing my hands up and removing my account several times. But I like being in touch with people around the world and learning from them. I like knowing what is happening with friends and family in a way that wouldn't be possible without computers. I like that my good friend from high school will be dining with my sister next week in Hong Kong simply because they found out they both will be on the other side of the world at the same time thanks to Facebook. But what is appropriate to share when it comes to my kids? Am I overreacting for feeling like an obnoxious mom after putting the kids' accomplishments online? Would I feel silly sharing the same information with an acquaintance over coffee? Should I stop posting photographs and stories about my kids altogether, whether they be to share something they accomplished or to laugh about something silly they did, or do I just need to acknowledge that they will grow up with their lives online no matter what?

I think I am going to make some changes regarding how I approach Facebook and other social media outlets and determine what seems right. In the meantime, who has some advice or words of experience for me?

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