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Anthropology in Practice

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It Takes a (Virtual) Village

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Facebook kids. (Photos used with permission of proud moms.) Top Left: Olivia Hellman, 7.5 months. Top Right: Juli Gomes, 8 months. Bottom Left: Chickpea, 2 years. Bottom Right: Sophia Gomes, 2 years.

You know the old saying that parenting doesn’t come with a handbook? Well, maybe it doesn’t need one—there’s Facebook.

In many ways I feel as though I’m watching the children of some of my friends grow up on Facebook. I’ve been with them from their first status update (e.g., “Introducing Jane Smith at 7lbs, 6oz and 20 inches long!”) to first time sleeping through the night to first tooth to first step and first word to sentences, all the way to first days at preschool and beyond. It’s kind of exciting in its own way because I get to benefit from the experiences of my friends and their networks as they offer advice on croup or giving medicine or potty training or pacifier weaning.

Snow White has nothing on Chickpea and the Cookie.

According to some Facebook moms, these updates on Facebook are an extension of what goes between parents offline at play dates, while waiting for their kids after-school, at birthday parties, and wherever parents come together. In other words, this isn’t new—but the medium has changed. These Facebook updates raise the visibility of the socialness of parenting, re-imagining the proverb “It takes a village” with a virtual village comprised of people more invested in the parent and child than might be those folks who are connected via circumstance, such as the playgroup connection. But they also seem to “normalize” parenting. There are some extreme images of parenting that get popularized. On one side, there’s the idea of the perfectly behaved child and what life must be like in the household that produces such progeny: it’s a stark, controlled, sanitized image. And then there’s the acknowledgment that parenting is not easy and child-rearing can be chaotic. In this scenario, the house is a mess, the kids are running around unsupervised, and the parents are overwhelmed. These images seem to stand in opposition, representing two different parenting experiences, but often (as it typically is) the truth is a more muddled road. Social network parenting updates share the breadth of parenting experiences, including the good and the bad (insofar as people will share since we are particularly good at sharing the good and holding the bad close to our chests). They help create images of parenting that bypass media depictions and are more socially relevant within networks.

Emma Caster-Dudzick and big brother Charlie.

In what is symptomatic of a generation that has grown increasingly comfortable sharing their lives online, these updates are a sort of digital parenting class. They offer a peek at the curve balls that come with parenting and provide a forum for supportive feedback—because I’ve never seen anyone respond to an update with “You’re doing it wrong, you pitiful excuse for a parent!”—and I think as a result people are more willing to share the quirky things kids do. For example, in my feed, a two-year-old treated her mom to an explanation of feedback (her hands go in circular motions) and static (she shakes her hands frantically), another older child debated with her mom over whether tights are actually pants, and a mom talked about finally getting some time to herself while baby and dad were out for a little bit. Parents seem more likely to cast off the concern that they “aren’t doing it right” or worry less about being perceived as a particular kind of parent and share the meaningful and worrysome moments in their lives. When the baby has croup and mom or dad is up at 3 am worrying about the cough or sitting with the kid in the shower, there’s a handy community available almost immediately to offer support and advice—and it’s a community that is likely to be aligned with the same parental and generational values as peers navigate life stages within the same relative time frame. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t unsolicited advice, or advice or comments that run counter to the parents’ philosophies, but it’s easier to ignore those comments in the virtual world than it might be when Grandma is looming with her brandy remedy for sore gums.

Recently, a friend of mine preceded her update about her daughter with an apology for being “one of those obnoxious parents” who over-share about their kids. She got several comments in response encouraging her to share. And why shouldn’t she? Parenting is hard enough as it is. You shouldn’t have to feel alone or that you and your kid need to meet some imagined standard—not when there are others out there with equally quirky stories to share.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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