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Dear Swipe This!
A few months ago, my baby sister gave birth to her first child, a beautiful healthy baby girl. I was thrilled, and our whole family was, too. The baby is our family’s first grandchild (I don’t have kids), so it was a big occasion. For the first days of my little niece’s life, my sister would send daily updates via group text, and my parents, brother, and I all cooed over the sweet pictures. Then, one day, she sent us a link to an Instagram for the baby and told us to follow her there for updates. Maybe I am being paranoid or old fashioned, but I thought, “Wow. That is a terrible, terrible idea.”
Even so, I followed the account like she told us to. Right now the account is mostly just friends and family, but I feel very concerned. Don’t you think it’s unhealthy for a baby to have an individual Instagram account? What kind of pressure does that put on a kid? Not to mention the loss of privacy at such a young age! The whole thing freaks me out. I love my sister, but I think she’s got really bad judgment on this one. So now I’m trying to figure out what to say to my sister and how to say it.
My sister loves social media. I’ve never thought of it as a problem before. I mean, I use it, too. Everyone uses it, to some extent. But my sister has always used it a lot more than me. She likes to post a lot. Vacations, things she’s cooked, brunches, birthdays, all that stuff. A couple of years ago, she started an account for her dog, which I love. She’s honestly a pretty good photographer. The account got a few thousand followers really fast because the dog was such a cute puppy. She even got sponsorships with a few pet companies. I never asked her about how well it paid, but I know that she was proud and excited when the account did well. She has a boring day job and I think social media is kind of a good creative outlet for her. Eventually, her dog’s follower count stopped rising, but she still has a decent following and I know keeping the account going makes her happy. Sometimes I even share her posts in my Instagram stories. I’m a supportive sister, I swear!
But the idea of her doing the same kind of thing with her child freaks me out. It reminds me of the creepy stage moms who pressure children to perform and grow up too fast. And I feel like it’s unfair to her child. I love when she shares images with our family. But sharing images with basically anyone on the internet and styling a whole identity for her kid online? Yuck!
I’m an elementary school teacher and I’ve seen kids as young as 8 or 9 who are already obsessed with Instagram. In general, I don’t think it’s very healthy for kids. But I get that it’s just a reality of how we live now, so I try to teach my students that your real life is more important than being seen online or how many followers or likes you get. I know my niece will grow up and be exposed to social media no matter what, but I’m worried that forcing her into it so early could have really negative effects.
I also think the account could damage their mother-daughter relationship. Our own mom is great, but she definitely had a fixation on always getting the perfect family photo and putting together family albums. Sometimes it’s nice to look back at them, but other times, I’ll look at a picture and remember her pressuring me to smile just right for the camera. She spent so much time trying to “fix” us for photos. There were times when I just wanted to run around and play outside, and my mom would interrupt and run over to me and fix my hair or brush dirt off my outfit because we were about to take pictures. What if my sister’s daughter grows up feeling pressured to always look pretty or photogenic? Or what if she turns out to be a shy private person and doesn’t like that there’s an archive of her entire life online already that anyone with an internet connection can access?
My sister is also pretty sensitive. She likes making people happy, and it can be hard for her to take criticism. So I’m worried that, with a situation like this, saying something could really hurt her feelings. But I also feel super uncomfortable watching this happen and not speaking up for a kid who doesn’t have the tools yet to speak for herself.
What should I do? Is there a “nice” way to tell her that this account is a very bad idea?
Supportive Stressed-Out Sister
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Dear Supportive Stressed-Out Sister,
Eek! I’d be lying if I told you your sister’s baby Instagram account didn’t freak me out. But I’d also be lying if I told you I’ve never checked out a stranger’s baby on Instagram and let it brighten the heck out of my day. Round animals and fat babies are, in my opinion, the saving grace of social media. So, while I empathize with your desire to protect your little niece from the big bad world of Online, I can’t help but wonder if your sister’s account is more harmless than you’re imagining it to be.
But the truth is, actually, it doesn’t matter whether it’s harmful or not. Because it’s actually none of your business how she raises her child. You don’t have the right to tell her when and how to share photos of her child any more than you do to tell her what to feed her or when to put her to bed. This is a matter beyond your control and if you want to be the supportive sister you claim to be, you’re going to have to find a way to let this go.
Yes, maybe your sister will go full stage mom and turn your niece into a diaper-sponsored-content machine. Or maybe, she will tire of the account and move on to a new interest. Maybe, she’ll have a second child and when the real exhausting work of parenting kicks in, she’ll find herself too tired to curate a toddler Instagram feed that’s optimized for likes. But whatever direction she chooses to go in, this is her life and her child and therefore it simply is not yours to control.
Maybe you think I’m being a little too harsh, but have you considered the ridiculous irony of you being so upset that your sister is ignoring her baby’s right to a choice when you think her best choice would be to let you, her wise older sister, decide what’s best for her?
Here’s the thing, most people, in some shape or form, have control issues. Some of us want to control others. Some of us are so overwhelmed by choices that we’d rather let others control us. But all of us have to wrestle at some point with the fact that there are parts of life we can control and parts of life we cannot. And that can be a pretty scary thing to reckon with. I found myself wondering while reading your letter, what exactly you haven’t reckoned with in your own life that is beyond your control? Are there things you wish you could fix or better that won’t shift the way you’d like them to, no matter how hard you try? And is it perhaps easier, instead of admitting to yourself that you sometimes feel powerless, to fixate on your sister and how if only you could control her, and, by proxy, her child, everything would be right in the world?
I’m not saying you don’t have your niece’s best interest at heart, but I think you are confusing your capacity to care with your urge to control. You’re right that there are real issues to how young people interact with social media today. And it’s true that your sister will one day have to confront how her relationship to social media affects her relationship to her child. But these are her problems and her choices, and no matter how much you love her or her child, you cannot and should not try to fix them for her.
It’s obvious that you did not enjoy some of the choices your own mother made in your childhood. But have you considered that that may not be the case for your sister? Whereas you felt controlled, manipulated, and pressured, is it possible that, in the process of taking what you describe as meticulous family photos, your sister felt important, or cared for, or even simply seen?
I suspect you, your mother, and your sister all share a longing for greater control in your lives. Perhaps you’ve found a sense of control in your classroom. Perhaps your mother found it in documenting family moments and organizing them carefully in albums. And perhaps your sister has found it on social media where she is free to edit her life’s moments into something a bit more manageable, a bit brighter and happier than what her daily life might actually be like. And if she has, is that so terrible?
It’s also possible that you’ve seen what happens when people grip their sense of control too tightly. Maybe your mother did you real harm in her attempts to craft the picture-perfect moments that might make her feel safe. Maybe she wasn’t as present as she could have been. And maybe you would have liked it better if she were able to run and play with you, or at the very least, witness you feeling alive and happy, rather than trying to pin you down and perfect you. And maybe this is where your anxiety stems from. Maybe you know what it’s like to be abandoned in so many small ways by someone who is fixated with chasing an imaginary better life, and that’s why you’re so protective of your little niece. But here you are, grown and strong and capable of forming opinions and asserting yourself. You survived and she will, too.
Like you, I was fortunate enough to grow up without the intense pressures of social media. But my parents often took photos with a Polaroid camera (yes, I’m that old) and I loved watching them develop in real time. I loved watching the colors emerge from black to murky green and brown and I can still recall discovering the shape of my own features as they emerged into frame. There was no control involved in this process, but I found it deeply satisfying to have an image revealed to me, bit by bit, until it faded from hazy to a crisp clear shape.
Perhaps your niece will one day scroll through the images your sister has lovingly taken of her and engage in her own process of discovery. Maybe she’ll be delighted to see herself so small and round and changeable. Or maybe, as you suggest, she’ll feel something was taken from her. But in either case, it will be a process of revealing, it will be one that she does not entirely control, and I am willing to believe that there can be value in that.
And so I wonder what would happen if you softened your grip, at this moment, on your old need to control. A beautiful new person is in the world, and she is going to reveal herself to you, bit by bit. In my experience, that process is so much magical and so beautiful. So I hope you’ll let yourself be present enough to enjoy it.