I click “post” on my latest blog entry and a pang of regret hits instantly. I wonder if perhaps I shared too much about my daughter in that post. I click “edit” and begin to pare down the details. After all, some aspects of our lives together are too private, too precious for public consumption. Moments later, as I am scanning Facebook, I click on a link that leads me to a blog post containing a photo of a red-faced, screaming child, accompanied by a mother’s rant about her “toddler from hell.” I flash forward to what this child might think if he or she were to come across this blog post in ten or twenty years. My focus immediately turns inward. What will my daughter think of what I’ve shared about her life on the Internet? Even though the things I’ve written about her are flattering, is it my right to share anything about her online? Or am I participating in an ethical breach that will impact both of us in the future? I close my browser, filled with more questions than answers.
The Genre of Mommy Blogging
Unlike generations before them, the lives of many members of Generation Z (children born after 1990) are “on view” on a daily basis, perhaps none more than the children of “mommy bloggers.” According to eMarketer, a digital media analytics firm, there are nearly four million American moms who blog, and this number is growing steadily. In her article on the “radical act of mommy blogging,” Lori Kido Lopez describes the genre as such: “women categorized as ‘mommy bloggers’ are simply women who are mothers and occasionally write about their own children. The language used in such blogs is extremely informal and usually narrative, and the most popular writers employ a great deal of humor and levity to entertain their audience… Nothing is off limits to these writers, and yet the recurrent theme of writing about children positions these women in the category of ‘mommy blogger.’”
This continually emerging genre blurs the lines between parenthood, hobby, social outlet and, for some, career. At best, mommy blogging is a way for mothers to connect with others by sharing articulately rendered experiences during what can be a particularly isolating and challenging and/or joyful and inspiring time (and a range of experiences in-between) in one’s life. At worst, mommy blogs provide a forum for child exploitation: using shocking or vulgar written imagery (often accompanied by photos and videos) of one’s children intended to provoke a strong reaction, thereby gaining a larger readership and more notoriety for the blogger herself. The reality is that most mommy blogs fall somewhere within this range, between “appropriate” sharing and exploitative practices.
Both journalists and academics have weighed in on why the genre of mommy blogging is significant from a feminist perspective, positing mommy blogging as a “radical act” that subverts the themes, style and expectations associated with the traditionally masculine blogosphere. These articles address how mommy bloggers shape public discourse and perceptions of motherhood through revealing private details of their own lives, and, of course, their children’s lives. The ethical issues pertaining to mommy bloggers have been discussed frequently online over the past few years, but usually the focus is on product endorsement (whether or not it is ethical for mommy bloggers to accept free products and money for posts, their disclosure practices, etc.). Far fewer articles, however, mention the impact of mommy blogging on its unwitting subjects: mommy’s children.
What are the ethical implications of the child-based connecting and airing of grievances, and the catharsis that is mommy blogging? Moreover, how much information about one’s child is, indeed, “appropriate” to share in a public forum? The truth is there is no way to fully grasp the ramifications of the widespread trend of mommy blogging (or social media in general) on Generation Z, given the fact that the reactions and outcomes of mommy blogging on these millions of children will be different depending on the particularities of each situation. We can, however, identify some broad, concerning trends.
Of course, mommy bloggers are not the only writers who engage in sharing information about kids online; plenty of father/grandparent/aunt/uncle writers/social media users do as well. Most parents or family members who use social media, whether the medium is a blog or a social networking site, have engaged in some sort of sharing about their children (i.e. a photo, an anecdote, a video). The “appropriateness” of what is shared is a subjective (and slippery) concept that differs from social media user to social media user, blogger to blogger, reader to reader. Most often, this type of everyday online sharing is done within one’s social media community, and is not intended to be read by a wider audience.
For mommy bloggers who are motivated to reach large numbers of readers, this sharing can quickly turn into what Atlantic contributor Phoebe Maltz calls “parental overshare.” She describes the concept as such: “First, the children need to be identifiable. That does not necessarily mean full names. The author’s full name is plenty, even if the children have a different (i.e. their father’s) last name. Next, there needs to be ambition to reach a mass audience.”
At times, parental overshare is centered on the negative, resulting in public “child shaming.” Closely related to the “bad mommy” genre (in which women blog about what horrible mothers they are in an attempt to find solidarity, redefine traditional maternal roles or attract readers), child shaming involves posting photos or anecdotes of children engaging in “bad behavior” in order to “shame them.” At times, the blogger even goes so far as to call her child a derogatory term. It’s typically intended as comedy (sometimes not), but one can’t help but wonder what types of serious psychological consequences this practice could produce in the child being “shamed.”
The future consequences of parental overshare and child shaming are numerous; these of-the-moment anecdotes will continue to exist in cyberspace as their subjects mature, potentially impacting their view of themself, the way the world views them, and their future personal and professional relationships. However, the ethical implications of parental overshare and child shaming don’t simply pertain to the future; there are immediate ethical questions to consider, the first of which is safety. When a blogger publishes details about a child’s preferences, weaknesses, appearance, whereabouts, etc., the public nature of this information only exacerbates the already vulnerable position of the child in today’s society.
Second, whether the information published on a blog is of a positive or negative nature, the very act of making it accessible to a wide audience calls into question in the notion of consent. It’s safe to assume that many mommy bloggers do not ask their child’s consent before publishing information about the child online. Even if they do, he or she may not even understand what the concepts of consent or privacy truly entail, depending on the age of the child.
When it comes to parental overshare and child shaming, it’s easy for critics to focus (or place blame) on the mommy bloggers themselves. There is another element to this equation, however. As I read through mommy blogs at all points along the sharing/over-sharing/child shaming continuum, it becomes evident that the barometer for what is socially acceptable to share about children online has been recalibrated by the mommy blogging phenomenon. If this is indeed the case, what has the role of the reader been in this process?
Mommy bloggers write to be read; without readers, the cycle is incomplete. If a blog post featuring a particularly personal and embarrassing anecdote or photo of a child gets a lot of views, then a mommy blogger who is looking to gain readership or notoriety is likely to post similar content in the future. Thus, readers who continue to visit these blogs are complicit in the disrespect and potential endangerment of children. As we move further into the cyber future, there needs to be more awareness of how children are (and will be) impacted by the actions of mommy bloggers who engage in parental overshare and child shaming, and how those who read these blogs participate in this ethical breach.
Jen Westmoreland Bouchard is the owner of a boutique writing, editing and translation agency, Lucidité Writing, LLC.