More and more parents are trafficking in their kids’ misery for social media validation - but is it actually harming children?
I was publicly humiliated when I was nine years old.
This character-defining moment took place in front of hundreds of parents and kids at a Christmas church service when I was at primary school. The vicar (a showey-off sort of bloke) had plucked me out of the crowd, as I sat cross-legged on the stage, with the sole purpose of embarrassing me.
He was teaching some lesson about gratitude and offered me either a chocolate bar or a pair of dirty rugby socks. Being a normal, non-idiot, I chose the chocolate but, to prove his point, he then pulled out of the socks a (clearly fake) gift certificate for a CD or DVD.
This stunt, which looking back didn’t make any sort of sense, made the congregation erupt in guffawing hysterics. I can see them now screaming and pointing at me – but maybe that’s just how I remember the humiliation as it’s trickled down through my memory.
I’m over it, of course, but I still think about it, like, 15 years later.
Now, imagine if one of those embarrassing moments from your childhood had been filmed and put on Twitter. You’d forever be that loser that kid that everyone laughed at, wouldn’t you?
Everywhere you went and every new job you started, people would eventually find out and go: ‘Hey aren’t you that dumb, loser kid who every laughed at?’
Unfortunately for today’s kids, this is something that could genuinely happen because there’s now a huge social media industry trafficking in childish misery.
Just recently, there was the mum who complained online when no-one showed up to her 6-year-old son’s pizza party despite sending out 32 invitations.
And there was the dad who boasted about his own bravery for sticking up for his son when he was bullied at school for wearing nail polish.
And, of course, there was the sad story of bullied kid Keaton Jones who got embroiled in an online debate about whether his family was racist.
All these stories get shared tens of thousands of times on Twitter and Facebook without any thought for the most important people: the actual kids involved.
And they inevitably get re-amplified as media companies repackage them and write heartstring-tugging articles about them. (ShortList has even written about some of the more interesting, exceptional examples).
It’s a modern phenomenon but it feels like we’re now reaching a tipping-point of this sort of self-indulgent sympathy baiting.
I can understand how it started; parents love rabbiting on about their kids’ lives to anyone who’ll listen. So this is effectively the modern-day equivalent of whacking out a picture of your ankle-biters from your wallet and prattling on to your work mates about ‘em.
And it’s probable that parents began sharing pictures and stories of their kids being sad and lonely with good intentions, perhaps to raise awareness, or out of a genuine desire to show their kids that they weren’t alone, that there were people out there who would empathise with them and make them feel better – but now we’ve definitely come too far.
It’s begun to feel distinctly like lots of parents are on the hunt for that perfect viral story about their child having no mates and being depressed and lonely - and the ‘pizza party kid’ could even be a step further in this quest. Call me cynical, but there are too many questions about this story that don’t add up. Why would you book a party for 32 kids if, presumably, they had not confirmed they would come? If they had confirmed they would come, would every single one of them - all 32 - really not turn up? And, if that really was the awful case, why on earth would you make your poor child a) pose for a photo, and b) post that photo on Twitter for everyone to see?
Unless, of course, you both want the attention and/or think you can get some nice freebies from celebrities - as was the case as, predictably, ‘pizza kid’ was invited to various sporting events by well-meaning stars and teams.
Regardless, according to experts, even if it is a genuine sad story, shared with the best of intentions, it could actually be doing your kids damage.
“My concern is that parents sharing too much on social media affects the relationship and emotional connection with their children and that, over time, it could erode trust,” she told ShortList.
“It’s crucial as parents that we are a child’s safe place, and kids need to know that if they go to their mum or dad, it’s the one place we can go to and be heard and listened to in private.
“But if so much of our personal lives are broadcast to the world, how can our children trust us that we are going to keep what they tell us private? Children deserve privacy too.
“And I’d be concerned about future repercussions. Sure, they can consent, but how easy is it for a child to actually say no to their parents, if their parents want to put something about their kids online? Parents are the ones with the power and authority. And just because a child consents now, it does not mean that they won’t change their mind in the future.
“All children ultimately crave their parents’ attention and if this is the way they are going to get their parents’ time and attention then they are probably going to agree to being put online.
“We may find ways to justify it to ourselves, but I do believe it’s time that we start being really honest with ourselves about the risks posed to our children and the negative impact it could have on the parent-child bond in years to come.”
Dr von Lob also thinks this problem of social media oversharing is getting worse over time.
“Parents sharing too much on social media is certainly an issue which I have seen increasingly in my practice over recent years and it’s a great cause of concern.
“Anxiety is one of the most common issues I see and certainly social media is a contributing factor to that.
“Parents should use social media as an opportunity to model respectful behaviour to your kids by asking their permission before posting pictures of them (if they are old enough) and never posting anything too personal or potentially embarrassing.”
So I have a simple message for parents: just stop.
Being a kid – and especially a teenager – can really suck sometimes. Not everyone has loads of friends and things don’t always go well at school, so please, please don’t go sharing every gruesome detail on social media.
If you really care about your child then have a word with their teachers, or maybe help them make some nicer friends. And if you’re going so far as to make up viral stories of sadness, exploiting your child in the process, then shame on you.
It’s not easy being a kid: don’t make it harder just so you can enjoy a few likes and shares.
(Images: Getty / Twitter)