The last three pictures of Scrunchy Face that I posted to my personal Facebook page show him smiling while standing on our lawn, him stuffing a sushi piece into his mouth, and him sitting placidly in a grocery store shopping cart.
In all of these pictures he looks so cute that he’s borderline edible … not that I’m biased. But if I’m being honest, I’ll admit that when I post such photos I’m not just sharing his cuteness to entertain 800 of my closest friends. I’m also telegraphing messages such as, “Look, I’m a good mom — I take my son outside!” “Look, I’m a good mom — I’m expanding my son’s palate!” and “Look, I’m a good mom — I don’t let my baby roam free in the cleaning supply aisle and chug Clorox while I’m sorting avocados.”
I’ve long suspected I’m not alone in touting my mostly minor parenting accomplishments in this way. Now a new study on how mothers with young children post photos to social media confirms my suspicions. In “A Digital Footprint from Birth: New Mothers’ Decisions to Share Baby Pictures Online,” University of Michigan researcher Priya Kumar examines what motivates mothers to post photos of their babies to Facebook and other platforms and what strategies they employ in determining what exactly to post.
Kumar notes that her sample — which consisted of 22 married women in their 20s and 30s, most of whom were middle class or upper middle class — wasn’t representative of the general population, so it’d be a stretch to assume her findings apply to the broad spectrum of social media-using new moms. But the responses the moms provided, as documented in Kumar’s 117-page report, are still rather illuminating. She found that while the mothers primarily shared photos as a way to connect with friends and family, they also conceded that there were various ways that posting pictures benefited them personally, including possibly shaping the way others saw them.
A mom after my own heart, identified as Marina, disclosed that she shared a picture of her son on the ground eating dirt. Kumar writes, “In addition to sharing because she found it funny, she said might have subconsciously wanted to show people that she was the type of mother who liked that her son was playing in dirt.”
(Side note: I just realized I don’t have any pictures of either of my sons playing in dirt. This must be remedied at once! Mom, if you’re reading this, know that the dirt will be super clean, sifted free of bugs and totally disinfected, I promise.)
In another case, a mother posted a photo of her son and her husband at a museum, in part because “she wanted to show her Facebook friends that they did cultural activities as a family.” Sound familiar? It certainly does to me — I still remember being disappointed that I couldn’t get a good photo of my older son, Saucer Eyes, in front of a dinosaur skeleton at the Smithsonian a couple of years back. Sure, he wasn’t quite two at the time and didn’t care about Triceratops fossils at all, but I was trying to make him care and it was important for my Facebook friends to know that! (For the record, Saucer Eyes absolutely loves dinosaurs now, and I’m taking full credit.)
In my and other mothers’ defense, indulging ourselves in this way may be important to our mental health. Kumar writes:
Given the tremendous effort that goes into raising a child, especially for the first time, and the lack of emotional and social support available to new mothers (Nelson, 2003), the ability to derive social capital benefits from online photo-sharing may be a very good outcome for new mothers.
But it’s not necessarily all good.
Kumar also noted that “participants did not seem to consider whether photo sharing would benefit their children as they decided whether to share a picture online.”
In other words, though kids may very well enjoy flipping through their old baby pics on Facebook years from now, most moms weren’t considering their children’s future reactions, leading Kumar to ask, “Is there a point at which sharing pictures online reflects an exhibitionistic urge emanating from the narcissistic self?”
It’s a question that merits a nuanced answer, and I’d love to give one, but I’m a bit busy right now scrolling through photos of Scrunchy Face on my iPhone, trying to find the perfect one of him at the Bronx Zoo, NOT eating butterflies in the greenhouse. Did I mention I’m a good mom?
Kumar’s study isn’t just about mothers, Facebook and narcissism. There’s a great deal in it about privacy concerns, familial relationships, and social media habits in general. Read the full study here and NPR’s take on the study here.
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