Once upon a time, we lived in a world where faraway relatives didn't get a glimpse of a new baby in the family until they received a birth announcement in the mail. It was a world where parents consulted books for their child-rearing conundrums and carried pictures of their kids in their wallet. Those friends from high school? Nobody heard from anybody until the 10-year reunion.
Today, we enjoy various forms of social media and can do all these things just as quickly as we can open an app on our smartphone. Kids no longer hear, "My, how you've grown!" from every relative they encounter, because those relatives are watching them grow up, live, on social media - through Instagram pictures, YouTube videos and Facebook status updates from their parents.
There's no denying that the past 10 years have completely altered how we interact with technology and with each other. And from the moment the first sonogram was posted on Facebook, social media also began changing how we raise our children.
In a new three-part series, Lowcountry Parent will be taking a closer look at parenting in our digitally connected world. We'll examine how to protect our kids online, of course, but also how to behave ourselves in this new world. To start the series, we've talked with local parents and experts on how social media, for better and worse, changed the experiences, and perhaps our effectiveness, as parents.
We'll explore more about kids' safety online in the February issue.
We're Not Alone
Since the very beginning of what we know as social media, sharing has been its key concept and foremost appeal. We log in to share our lives and keep up with not only those we love, but also those we hardly know. Almost immediately, social media closed a gap, allowing us to stay connected to distant family members, friends from years ago, coworkers, acquaintances and even relative strangers.
For parents, the benefits include fostering relationships that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside and having easy access to a community of other parents for camaraderie, tips and advice.
Charleston blogger and mother of three Heather Solos said she became a Twitter fan when she was working from home and pregnant with her third child. She quickly found it to be an easy avenue to stay connected to the outside world.
"I had very young children and it was easier to socialize in small bursts and do it when I was able," she said. "The fun part of Twitter is you can put something out there and come back to it later. It's not like a chat room you're having to keep up with all the time.
"For me, it's been great for networking. It's basically my water cooler, since I work virtually and don't have officemates. It's been my lifeline."
Solos also found she could turn to the online world when she needed advice. Back in 2007, she was frustrated by the lack of relevant online information on common household tasks - from the best ways to clean a bathroom to removing stains from clothes. Along with a friend, she created the blog Home Ec 101, where she researches and posts the basic how-to information on common household problems. The website grew so rapidly she eventually made it into a book.
"The really interesting thing about social media is you develop a kind of rapport with your audience," she said. "It's not the same as when a figurehead like Dr. Spock, who is so far removed from parenting, says something. Even though that's their life and their expertise, you no longer look at someone like that as being in the trenches. But when you know your friend was complaining about their kid puking in the middle of the night not too long ago, and you know that they're dealing with the same stuff in relatively recent history, it has more meaning. It makes it easier to find more relevant and relatable advice."
Whether they're hoping for potty training advice from friends or hunting down recipes from a long-distant aunt, parents see social media as a convenient place to swap information. And unlike the old days of pen pals, we can now instantly share the ups and downs of our everyday lives. Of course, this usually includes our kids.
Parents love their kids, and they love taking and sharing pictures of their kids. Some may love it a bit too much, and thanks to them, we have a new buzzword: "Oversharenting."
Local writer and father of two Bryce Donovan (a former columnist and writer for both Lowcountry Parent and The Post and Courier) posts plenty of stuff about his kids on social media, but he also says he sees how nonsensical it has become. Nowadays, many of his posts poke fun at the common online practices of other parents.
After his daughter was born recently, he posted; "Ok Facebook folks, I've got a deal for you: Let's all pretend I just posted a photo of my newborn daughter and you post your oohs and ahhs about it. It's win-win. You don't have to see a photo of a little Edward James Olmos and I get bathed in your generous compliments toward my child."
"I recognize how ridiculous it is on social media now," Donovan said. "How just completely saturated it is with pictures and the stuff about kids."
Donovan says that despite posting plenty about his own children, he doesn't see the appeal in posts about other people's kids.
"I just don't care, so I expect everyone else to feel the exact same way. So if I'm going to put something out there about my kids, it's got to be funny or entertaining, because otherwise, it just makes everyone want to throw up."
There are lines that Donovan says he won't cross when it comes to parenting and social media. Setting his profile pictures as his kids, for instance, and posting anything that has to do with his kids' bodily functions. He also said he's also tired of all the online bragging.
"I think one of the fundamental things anybody could ask before posting something on the Internet, whether it's on social media or on a blog, is: 'What am I lending when I do this? Is it self-serving or is it meant to enlighten or entertain others?' If the answer's in the second camp, then it's fine. But it's not if you're bragging about your trip to Hawaii.
"People are going to start swearing off some of these social media sites, because it's so saturated that it's lost the novelty."
Aside from concerns about "oversharenting," some parents are also starting to think more about the implications of recording every aspect of their child's life in the permanent, open record that is the Internet. After all, it can be hard to draw the line between sharing your own life online and sharing too much of your kids'.
According to a recent study by AVG Technologies, 92 percent of children under age 2 already have a digital footprint, meaning identifiable photos and other personal information has been posted of them online. Whether for security or privacy concerns, many parents are starting to think twice before posting anything related to their children.
"The Internet's the wild west right now," Donovan said, "So I don't know that we have any clue what sort of damage we're doing to them. Every time I put something out there, it's out there. It's not really fair to them. I'll post stuff that's funny, but I try not to post anything that's demeaning to them, because they don't have a voice right now.
"You've got to try to pretend like they're adults when you make decisions of what to post or not post. It's only fair, because they don't have a voice."
Even though social media was created to connect us, some argue it can break important, real-life links. Bonnie Compton, parent coach at the Life Guidance Center in West Ashley and host of Whole-Hearted Parenting Radio, says she sees it often: parents too distracted by their smartphones to spend quality time with their kids.
"For me, the biggest detrimental effect of not only social media but also technology, is the disconnect," she said. "Where are you putting your attention? One of my pet peeves is parents on their smartphones, which we're seeing a lot now. They're either talking, texting, tweeting, checking their email or they're on Facebook.
"The parents really aren't as present as they could be. These really are the critical times of being with your kids. We've got to remember that kids just want to be seen and validated. You can't do that while you're on your smartphone."
Even though many parents take precautions to limit their children's screen time, Compton argues that parents should do the same when it comes to their own digital distractions. Taking a break from social media exhibits good behavior for your children, and it creates much-needed family time, she said. Compton recommends the entire family put away their phones and devices at meal times, in the car and at night when everyone goes to bed.
"Remember, your kids are watching," she said. "Before you pick up that smartphone that you've been on most of the day, take a minute, take a breath and say: 'You know what, I'm not going to do that right now.'
"Intentionally make times in the day when you know you're going to be checking email, Facebook. Have that carved into the day. For parents of little kids, if you can, do that when the kids aren't around - naptime, before the kids get up, after they go to sleep - because little ones just don't understand."
By taking away digital distractions, it's easier to find time for family activities, Compton said. Don't just take away the kids' devices and leave them sitting there bored. Get them involved in a fun activity to do as a family, she said.
"The No. 1 thing I hear in my parenting classes when I ask kids: "If you could change one thing in your family, what would it be?' They say: 'That my mom and dad would spend more time with us and we'd have more fun family time. That we'd go on vacation together, that we'd play games together.'
"They say they're always so busy and so stressed. The No. 1 stressor for kids is how stressed their parents are. This constant checking of devices and being on the computer, we don't even realize how charged up we get with all this stuff until we stop. It all goes back to mindful parenting."
Befriending Your Kids Online
Of course, as kids get older there's the added complexity of your children having their own social media presence. Parents of tweens and teens often find themselves both refereeing their kids' online behavior and testing the boundaries of the parent-child relationship online.
The same AVG Technologies study found that half of kids ages 6 to 9 regularly use social networks, even though the legal user age for many popular sites such as Facebook is 13.
Liz DeLoach is a local mother of two teenagers and owner of Social Strategies, her own social media marketing business. Even though she's made social media her expertise, she said navigating the waters of social media and her kids was a challenge.
"It's a whole different dynamic when they're teenagers," she said. "You have to loosen the reins a little bit and let them explore, but you have to keep guidelines in place, too.
It's given us an entirely new avenue of communication with our kids, but we also have to help them figure out how to use it best."
Connecting with your kids online opens a new window into your children's personal lives, DeLoach said. It allows parents to keep an eye on their children by following them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, and also gives parents a glimpse of their kids' social lives, which they otherwise might not discuss.
"It gives you yet another avenue and window into your child's life that our parents didn't have," she said. "Back in the old days, if I wanted to talk to my friend at school I might call them, I might pass a note. Now, because kids text and they use social media, I can have a better window into what they are doing than my parents had, in a certain respect."
DeLoach says social media also can open a can of worms when it comes to lessons you have to teach your kids. She said she no longer just teaches them how to behave in person-to-person interactions, but also how to behave online.
"You have to really counsel your kids about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate to post on their social media presence," she said. "I tell my kids, 'Don't take family issues into the social spaces, that remains in our house. Don't be passive aggressive online. Don't engage in a big online argument with someone. No dissing on teachers or your school because that could really get you in trouble.'
"Sometimes kids need a place to vent, and social media is not the place to vent. You really have to key in on teaching your kids how to communicate in the socialscape."
DeLoach said it's also important to talk with your kids about what your relationship with them will be online. They probably don't want you liking everything they post and butting into conversations they're having with their friends. It's important to discuss what the boundaries will be ahead of time, she said.
"You do want to establish guidelines: When is it okay for me to weigh in? I ask my daughter's permission before I tag her in family photos," DeLoach said. "You've got to establish what the boundaries are going to be in parent-child communication on the social network itself."