The Trouble with Being a Parent and an Influencer
My plan was to write about something other than social media this week. But after the Facebook whistleblower on 60 Minutes, the article in The Wall Street Journal claiming Facebook hid research about how Instagram negatively affects teen girls, and the social media outage on Monday, the impact of our obsession and dependency on all of these apps has been on my mind.
None of this information is really new, but it does seem like collectively, we are all coming to a social media tipping point. Whether that causes us to step away or give in to the inevitable is probably up to the individual. I did notice that after the outage, there were a lot of posts from people I follow who treated it like a VERY BIG DEAL, but most people in the comments on my Instagram account said they didn’t even notice. I think that’s because you guys are a pretty healthy bunch. I definitely noticed, but didn’t mind. Since I post on social media for a living, it felt like I had rolled up to the office prepared for a busy day and then my boss told me to go home. I enjoyed my day off. But it did make me wonder what my relationship with social media would be, if it was purely recreational and not how I earn my income.
It’s very hard to judge an addiction when it’s also your job.
Before I get into my existential crisis about making a living on Instagram, I feel the need to say— I absolutely love what I do. I feel incredibly fortunate that I have found a way to support my family by writing about parenting, posting pictures of my kids, unboxing fun packages, and filming random snippets of my life to put on my Instagram stories. I’ve always been a creative storyteller, so having a way to share my outlook on the world with a larger audience (whether it be through writing, photography, graphics or video) has been very rewarding personally. But something I didn’t know when I started this online gig (as a blogger almost 12 years ago) is the bad rap this industry would end up getting. I mean, it wasn’t even an industry back then. We were trailblazers! Now being an “influencer” is both envied and mocked, often in the same breath. I know, I know, I’m not really an “influencer.” I’m a writer, a community builder, a content creator…. I’ve said them all. But truthfully, when someone asks what I do, it all sounds the same.
Now, if it was just my fellow adults who looked down on my job, I could take it. I used to work in advertising and that was known as the devil’s work too. But I’m starting to recognize that one day soon, my kids might look down on what I do as well, which is a harder pill to swallow. I mean, according to my kids, Instagram is no longer cool, Tiktok is where it’s at, and everything mom does on Tiktok is CRINGEY. I tend to agree. Although I did just read a profile on a Tiktok influencer in the New York Times who said, “Everything is cringey, until it gets views.” So, so true.
If it was just about being cringey and uncool, that would also be fine with me. Aren’t all parents cringey to their kids? But there’s a new piece to the equation that I didn’t factor in until recently, which is that I am making a living on a platform within an industry that is considered unhealthy. For adults, for kids, for society in general. I mean, people think that Facebook is destroying democracy so I don’t think I’m overstating. I always thought that if I could manage my time online, have a healthy attitude about likes and follows, develop a thick skin and cultivate a supportive audience, I could remain unscathed and everything would be fine. But now there’s a larger conversation happening about the dangers of social media in general and it’s making me concerned that I’m not setting a good example for my kids. What if mommy’s line of work is contributing to the problem?
In the article in The Wall Street Journal, the author quoted an email from Senator Blumenthal regarding Facebook’s culpability in the damage it’s doing to young girls: “Facebook seems to be taking a page from the textbook of Big Tobacco—targeting teens with potentially dangerous products while masking the science in public.” Equating Facebook and cigarette companies has got to give most parents considerable pause. Is Facebook just as potentially damaging to our children’s mental health as nicotine is to their physical health?
The three areas the research cited Instagram for making kids’ self esteem plummet was perfect image, feeling attractive and having enough money. I think I’m too old to compare myself to the beauty vloggers and thirst traps on Instagram, so that never really affected me, but I do understand the “having enough money” thing. Which is funny, because back when I started my blog (in pre-Instagram days), I recognized my privilege and was careful not to portray the snootier side of Manhattan. I remember when I bought my summer house, I debated even sharing it with my audience because I was afraid it would make me seem unrelatable. But somehow, over the years, that fear of being unrelatable faded away and a newer desire to appear aspirational emerged.
I blame Instagram’s perfectly curated squares for that.
So how did I go from feeling privileged to feeling like I didn’t have enough? For this, I blame Tiktok. I never felt “less than” on Instagram because I built my platform before most of my real life friends were using it. I had a large audience pretty quickly and have always operated in my own little bubble. I am not going on my feed and comparing myself to everyone else. I am there to create stories, post pics and interact with my audience. When I joined Tiktok, it was a different story. On Tiktok, you have to watch what other people are posting to understand the platform, get the trends and be in on the jokes. That was my first real experience with an algorithm figuring me out and deciding what to serve me, for better or worse, to keep me there as long as possible. When I first started, I was in a pretty good place emotionally and found all of the content innocent, positive and fun. But then the pandemic stretched on and everyone around me started making major life changes which caused me to question my own choices. That’s when Tiktok turned dark for me. I started getting served up a lot of content that made fun of living in New York City (which was all hilarious) and then also a lot of envious home decor and house renovation content. Since I seemed to like home decor and NYC, I also started seeing a lot of Tiktoks from creators who had insanely large and luxurious apartments in Manhattan. And since Tiktok is a younger platform, most of these people were way younger than me. What in the actual fuck???
Let the social comparison commence.
I am not being dramatic when I say— IT KEPT ME UP AT NIGHT. And then I started getting served insomnia content.
I don’t really want to get into my own insecurities and the messed up nature of a fairly successful person suddenly feeling like she’s done life all wrong, except to say that now I have firsthand experience with social media making me feel negatively, just like the article was describing. And once I started to feel negatively, Tiktok only got worse. Between the Tiktoks featuring beautiful suburban houses and NYC rodents, I started getting a lot of mental health content, aggressive parenting advice, suggestions that maybe I have ADHD (seriously considering getting this checked out) and relationship analysis. The kicker was right after a pretty bad friend break up (my first since high school), I got served up a woman called the “friendship expert” who was here to tell me why I was losing friends. HOW DID IT KNOW???
My first reaction was to stop watching Tiktok. I quit for a few months and felt better for it. But then I remembered something I did with Instagram a few years ago. I was noticing that I was getting a lot of newborn content, which was making me feel sad because I had recently decided I wasn’t having any more kids. Why was Instagram all babies all of sudden??? Well, it was my fault, because I was clicking on photos of babies and looking at those photos a little longer than others. The algorithm is always a mirror. So, I made a conscious effort to switch up what I was interacting with. I unfollowed some accounts who had just announced pregnancies, I stopped hearting newborn baby photos and I started a hashtag called #thebigkidyears which I encouraged my followers with older kids to use as well. This effort was effective pretty quickly and I’ve been happy on Instagram ever since. (Well, up until reels took over, but that’s another story.) The lesson is that we are the masters of our own demise. We can learn to manipulate the algorithm instead of letting it manipulate us.
What about our kids and social media?
I’ve always held fast to the rule that my kids can’t be on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat until they are at least 13. But I caved on Tiktok, because it was something that all Mazzy’s friends were joining at the beginning of the pandemic, and honestly because I didn’t understand it that much at the time. I thought it was something we could do together, which is what happened initially, but we are both long past that.
Yesterday, I sat Mazzy down to talk about The Wall Street Journal article and about my personal experience on the app. She understood but told me that Tiktok isn’t making her feel sad. She said she watches mainly funny stuff and it’s just a fun thing to do with her friends. I watch her “for you” page alongside her often (which I recommend if your kid is also on the app), and I agree— she still seems to be interacting with the innocent and entertaining stuff she started with. We don’t allow her to have Tiktok on her phone, so she only uses it at home on her iPad, in our living room where we can see her. She’s got a time limit set and doesn’t ask for more or complain when we tell her to put it away. She’s also got a pretty healthy sense of self, which I can see plainly and she reiterated to me, although not in those exact words. And lastly, she told me that whenever she sees something that she doesn’t like or feels inappropriate, she long pauses on it so that she can click “not interested.” That’s actually something I told her to do when she first joined the app, but I had forgotten that I could apply that myself.
Before our conversation, I was considering taking Tiktok away, but afterward, I didn’t want to punish her for something I think she is currently managing well. So, instead, I complimented her on having a healthy relationship with social media so far and told her to come to me if she ever felt like Tiktok was taking her down a negative path, because obviously I would understand. If I could do it all over again, I would probably make Mazzy hold off on Tiktok until she was 13 just like all the other apps, but now that she’s using it, I think my best bet is to carefully monitor and make her aware of the potential pitfalls.
As for me, I realize that my joy comes from creating content, more than consuming, so that’s what I should focus on. I also realize that Instagram needs more positive forces, and I am happy to play that role. Maybe I can help by being a little less precious and curated about what I post.
One thing I’ve talked with my kids about in the past is how social media is so different than what happens in reality. We were watching an episode of Brain Games that was talking about social media’s effects on the brain. It opened with a woman setting up lighting, putting on tons of make-up, and then using a filter before posting a selfie. The girls who saw the photo thought she looked naturally beautiful, but we knew how much effort and fakery had actually gone into that seemingly spontaneous moment.
Mazzy and Harlow’s reaction were both, “But you don’t do that on Instagram, Mom!” I told them to reconsider. I pulled up a photo I had posted of them smiling at an event. “Did you have fun here?” Mazzy thought about it and remembered the actual moment. We were fighting about posing for the picture before they eventually obliged. That happens often. Mazzy smiled. “That photo isn’t real either.” Nope. I think we all have those real life examples to share with our kids, whether we are content creators or just regular parents who post on Instagram. The lie might even be the photo on our holiday card.
Here’s another great example I saw on Tiktok. It shows the POV of someone watching a content creator arriving at her destination juxtaposed with someone watching the content creator filming themselves arriving at their destination. I recommend watching with sound on.
Showing your kids videos like these takes away the social comparison envy really quickly and it’s a good lesson for ourselves as well. When I saw this video, I liked and followed so hopefully I could get on “social media image debunking Tiktok.”
That feels like a healthy place to be.
What’s your relationship with social media like lately? What are your biggest concerns about your kids using social media?
I hope everyone is ready for this weekend’s TV Club discussion about Ted Lasso! Season Two finale airs tomorrow. The TV Club is a feature available to paid subscribers only. If you’d like to part of it, consider upgrading your subscription! If that is not financially feasible for you at this time, please just send me email. Paid subscriptions are not meant for this community to be exclusive; just so I am more motivated to keep it going instead of spending all my time on Instagram!