Monday, March 23, 2015

Thoughts from a 40-Something Mom to All the 30-Something Moms who are Freaking Out about Internet Oversharing

Thou shalt not write about thy children online.
Photo courtesy of iceviking,
In 1994, when I was a senior in college, I searched the World Wide Web for the very first time. I still remember that Mosaic query: surfing conditions in Australia, a half a world away from Provo, Utah. The answer? A full report, including weather forecast, tides, and wave conditions. In that moment, I felt like I had won the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Knowledge Factory. This will change everything, I thought. I never once thought about trolls.

In 1994, you were ten years old. No one was thinking about what the Internet would mean for ten year olds.

In 1996, when I was a graduate student at UCLA, teaching assistants faced a daunting new requirement: virtual office hours.  The concept was so mysterious and misunderstood that some of my fellow students actually organized labor protests. But as a woman expecting her first child, I saw instead the potential to work from anywhere, which at the time seemed like an overwhelming positive. Maybe, with the help of a computer and a dial up modem, a mother could work from home, I thought.

In 1996, you were 12 years old. You were probably one of the 75 percent of public school students who were using the Internet for middle school research projects that year. In 20 years, working from home—or anywhere else, for that matter—would be your normal.

In 2001, I was a young work-at-home mother playing around with coding basic html websites, and a fleeting thought passed my mind: what if I could create a website to share pictures and updates of my two beautiful boys with our family and friends? A book editing project distracted me, though the idea never quite left my mind.

In 2001, you were 18 and headed to a very different college experience than the one I had a decade earlier.  In fact, the American Psychiatric Association reported that in 2001, one in ten college students was addicted to the Internet. A researcher explained the findings as follows:  "The sense of security afforded by the anonymity of the Internet provides some students with less risky opportunities for developing virtual relationships." (Ah, that sense of anonymity!)

In 2007, I joined Facebook so I could play Scrabble online with my siblings. I quickly realized that it was the perfect platform for that shelved idea of sharing pictures and updates of my now four beautiful children. I never once thought about privacy. Why would anyone other than people I knew and trusted want to look at my Facebook page? I also created my blog, The Anarchist Soccer Mom. I loved the idea of an anonymous forum where I could be candid about the challenges (and joys) of parenting—and those challenges were becoming increasingly hard as my second son failed to respond to treatments for his erratic behaviors, which we would learn (much later) were caused by his bipolar disorder. Did I worry that people would know it was me? Of course not. No one—then or now—reads your blog.

In 2007, you were 24, transitioning to an adulthood that was shaped by unlimited access to all kinds of information. Maybe you had just bought your first iPhone, a device that transformed not only the way we access and share information, but refashioned our entire culture. Your adult life was shaped by a knowledge of this “revolutionary and magical” tool—the all-knowing computer in your purse. Before you had children, you had time to experience both the wonder and the terror of this new constant connection to all of humanity’s combined wisdom and ignorance.

40-something moms like me did not have that same luxury. Our children were young—or just being born—when all this wonderful and terrifying new technology was unleashed on us. In the 1980s, parents proudly carried wallet-sized print photos of their children. In the late 2000s, we started posting pictures, by the thousands, of our children online. We sincerely thought that the audience for those Facebook albums was the same as the audience for our parents’ wallet photos.

In 2012, when you had young children of your own, you knew better. You spent your early adult years watching people do stupid things and go viral. You experienced, either personally or vicariously, the extreme public shaming that only the Internet can facilitate. And you didn’t want your children to experience that level of public shame, with good reason. Internet bullying is awful, pervasive, and sometimes even fatal

So you created a new word to describe your criticism of the 40-something moms who were constantly posting about their kids: oversharenting. And you created a new commandment of mommy righteousness: “Thou shalt not write about thy children online.”

In 2012, in a gut wrenching intersection of a personal tragedy with a very public one, I shared a painful story about my own family on my anonymous blog. Then, after a lengthy conversation with a close personal friend, I decided to allow him to republish it, with my name attached. My revelation that my son had mental illness and we didn’t know how to help him has become Exhibit A in more than one essay about parental oversharing. For example, in 2013, Phoebe Maltz Bovy described my essay, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” as “the most outlandish version of a popular genre: parental overshare.”

In the aftermath of my viral blog post, I thought long and hard about my children’s privacy, and I made some pretty significant changes to the way I post things about my children on social media. I don’t ever use their names now. I think carefully about the content of any message concerning them, and I use privacy settings to limit access to people who can see what I post. Although I love Instagram, I try to make sure my kids’ faces are not visible in the pictures I share there.

But I absolutely refuse to stop talking about my family’s struggles with mental illness. In the case of mental illness, or any illness, advocacy trumps privacy.

Every parent writer struggles with how to talk about his or her children. Emily Bazelon presciently took on this topic in 2008. Wondering whether her own revelations about her children’s lives were violating their privacy, she asked, “Should we all close our laptops once our kids learn to talk?”

In response to her question, one honest blogger told her that he “mostly saw my hand-wringing over the ethics of writing about my kids as the result of ‘the same narcissistic impulse that causes us to write about our families in the first place. Because most people don't care what we write.’” 

This is a fact. If you write about your kids, or post their adorable pictures on social media, most people won’t read what you write. And your intended audience—real-life friends and family—are likely to appreciate your posts and feel more connected to you. I don’t see how that’s any more harmful to your children and their privacy than an annual holiday letter, and those have been around for a while.

But I also understand the privacy advocates who worry about what happens if people do in fact read what you write. Quite a few people read what I wrote about my son on December 14, 2012. More than four million, in fact.

My chief complaint with people who use me as an example of oversharing is quite simple: they all contend that what I wrote about my son was damaging to him or his future.

And that’s not even close to true.

I wish that Abby Phillip of the Washington Post had actually reached out to me to discuss the consequences of what she calls “oversharenting” when she quoted my blog. In our case, sharing our story had more positive than negative outcomes. Because I spoke up, my son got effective treatment and is now back in a mainstream school with friends who are totally fine with his bipolar disorder. In fact, they—and I—admire his self-advocacy and think he is brave for speaking out and sharing his story. We were also able to connect to an amazing community of mental health advocates. No one has ever approached us in the grocery store and said, “I know who you are. You’re that mom and kid who talked about mental illness after Newtown. You are horrible people.” It doesn’t work that way.

Google “oversharing child cancer” and see if you can find criticism of mothers who post about their children who have cancer on social media. (I couldn’t). Why was my alleged oversharing potentially damaging to my son’s future? Because we should be ashamed of his illness? Or because the writers who criticize me are ignorant about mental illness?

Would you like to know what is actually damaging to my son and his future?
  1. The appalling lack of access to mental health care for children and families.
  2. Our society’s decision to send children and adults with mental illness to prison.
  3. The stigma we perpetuate when we respond sympathetically to a mom who writes about her child’s struggle with cancer but cry “oversharing!” when a mom talks about her child’s struggle with bipolar disorder.

These struggles—cancer and mental illness—are only different because the second mom will have tremendous difficulty both in getting people to care and in getting access to care.

Even Hanna Rosin, one of my most vocal critics after my blog post went viral, finally got this last point after she researched and wrote a moving piece on Kelli Stapleton, who will spend ten years in prison after a failed attempt to kill herself and her then 12-year old daughter, who has autism. 

When I suggested on Twitter that Rosin’s thinking had evolved on the subject of parents who advocate for their children with mental illness, she responded, “For sure. I really didn’t get it until I read your book and talked to Kelli.”

Now, in 2015, I share the most important and relevant portions of my family’s story, with my children’s permission, in every place I can.

And this is my heartfelt request to you, 30-something moms: keep sharing, especially if your child has an illness that can benefit from awareness and advocacy. Parents of special needs children actually rely on Facebook for much-needed support. You never know when sharing your experiences might change someone's heart and help to heal a mind.


Unknown said...

Well said! Our society fears those of us who have a mental illness.

Heather said...

I agree well said. My son also has bipolar disorder and regardless of whether or not I talk about it, the fact that he has it will affect his future. But because I spoke up for him and sought treatment and continued to seek for the right treatment he's stable and doing very well. Treatment is what counts for a good future.

A said...

Liza, you should speak with a few "oversharenting" victims before you try to convince the public that it's not an abuse of a parent's power to write about their child's private life on a forum that the world can access all day, every day and that can never be erased. You could begin with your son. In the People Magazine interview you and “Michael” did last year, he said “I wish that my mom hadn’t come forward. It sure has caused a lot of pain and suffering for our family.”

zinnias said...

Of course, "A," you (intentionally?) left out a few of his words. The online article has these quotes: "I really wish my mom hadn't come forward," he admits. "I also really wish others would because it sure has caused a lot of pain and suffering for our family, but I'm pretty sure it has helped a lot of others."

Liza's unplanned advocacy has indeed helped many others.

Unknown said...

Hello Mrs. Long, my name is Charlotte Klass and I am a Child and Family studies major at Syracuse University. I am currently working on a research paper discussing the need for better mental health care in America. We read one of your articles in my class and it inspired me. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about your experience as a mother of a child struggling with mental illness, and what changes you hope to see in the mental health system.

Anarchist Mom said...

I don't usually comment--but I do want to clarify something for zinnias:
1. We both regretted it. The immediate consequences were horrible for both of us. Getting beat up on the Internet on a daily basis is not a lot of fun. Long-term, though, we've both decided that advocacy is important.
2. My son now reviews and approves everything-including this-that I write about him.