Last month you likely sympathized with Jade Ruthven, the Australian mother whose Facebook friends ruthlessly demanded she stop posting every little thing her 6-month-old daughter did, ate and wore. They didn’t just corner her, Mean Girls style, at a “Mommy and Me” class, no. They sent her a letter, semi-anonymously. I say “semi” because even though they didn’t sign the letter, it was clear who sent it.
While I don’t agree with their tactics, Ruthven’s friends weren’t entirely wrong. With parents flooding their Instagram and Facebook accounts (and Tumblr, and Vine, and Meerkat, and Periscope and… ) with constant updates, photos and videos of everything from strawberry-picking excursions, loose teeth to dog encounters, it should occur to them that they are not experiencing these moments, just documenting them. Those are two very different things according to science.
In her study, Point and Shoot Memories, scientist Linda Henkel tells us that taking photos of experiences rather than living those experiences may worsen your memory for them. This research is groundbreaking in that it teaches us how we lose more than a memory, but a feeling. Henkel found that subjects who took lots and lots of pictures of an experience had worse memory for objects, but more importantly worse memory for specific object details.
That means, if your plan is to have a lovely Mother’s Day picnic, but you spend much of it photographing your kids, the food, a tree, then years from now you will have a harder time remembering the truly important details. Like, the expression on your child’s face (was it pride or trepidation?) when they handed you their Mother’s Day gift. You will have no memory of the small details that really make a day special. Instead, you’ll be trading those memories for a one-size-fits all swipe of what the facts of the day were, rather than what everybody said and felt.
Why would this be? Well, when you whip out your camera to mindlessly capture a moment, what you are really doing is screwing with the natural course by which memories are created. Memory is a three-step process: encoding, storing and then retrieving. Each step is reliant on the previous one. Recent research has confirmed that looking at life through a camera lens impairs the encoding process, step number one, which in turn interrupts the next two, permanently.
Henkel calls this the “photo taking impairment effect” which she says happens when you rely on technology to record a memory rather than relying on your brain.
A version of this also happens when you Facebook each moment too. You’re not really going to get on Twitter and report exactly what happened, are you? You’re going to sugar coat it, maybe even fabricate a tiny bit or just tell us the good stuff so that smug Nicole from high school can’t judge you as a mom. You’re also not going to want to give your sanctimonious sister-in-law any ammunition to use against you at the next family gathering. That means you are allowing social media to direct your social behavior. Psychologists call this the social desirability bias which is a term used in research to explain when a subject tells us what they think we want to hear, rather than the truth, so that we view them favorably.
Do you have any idea how exhausting that becomes as a mom when you have to not only post, but also edit what you will and won’t say in order to maintain your perfected “mommy brand”? It is exhausting and stressful. Don’t get me wrong, moms have been fabricating stories about their kids even before there were Diaper Genies and gender reveal parties. It’s just that those stories were not documented forever on the internet. Motherhood now has a social media footprint that has been elevated to a lifestyle and a daily chore.
This constant need to tell the world what you are doing, rather than just doing it, subtly communicates to your family that your Facebook “friends” are more important to you than they are. Your life is busy and your times with your children are precious and few; wouldn’t you want to spend them allowing your children to look at your eyes rather than look at you through your cell phone lens? I’m not saying to stay off of social media completely, but can’t you wait until Mother’s Day is over and tell everyone about it on Monday?