Is Giving Unsolicited Advice Online Helpful — or Rude?
Welcome back to Parental Advisory, where I answer all of your social media and IRL parenting etiquette questions. This week, let's talk about so-called car seat warriors. Are they superheroes... or super-annoying?
A friend of mine is a "car seat warrior" who is always leaving comments on other people's photos on Facebook and Instagram (even people she doesn't know, I've noticed) about how they're using their car seats incorrectly. She considers herself an "expert" on car seat safety, so she freely doles out advice and will tell people they're strapping in their kids wrong or their toddler should still be rear-facing, etc. Stuff like that. I've noticed most parents either ignore her or acknowledge her comments by saying "thanks for the advice" or something else short and polite, but recently, another (mutual) friend confessed to me that she thinks this woman is actually trolling for random car seat photos so she can dispense her "wisdom." I'm all for saving kids' lives and offering up advice where it's needed, but when does being helpful cross into obsessive territory?
Do you think she's in the right for telling people what they're doing wrong, or is she being inappropriate by commenting on car seats so much? The first couple times I saw her comments on friends' photos, I thought she was being constructive, but now I think she's just being fanatical about car seat safety and it's too much. I probably won't say anything to her, but I'm wondering your thoughts. Also, I think I'd feel differently if she was giving people suggestions in real life in a parking lot or something instead of just commenting on people's photos online. The internet isn't always the most accurate representation of reality, you know?
Unsolicited advice is almost always rude, even when it's constructive. The reason "car seat warriors" — a group that by my observation is made up mostly of moms and which has been on the rise in the age of social media — often get away with telling parents what to do or what not to do is because they blur the lines between personal interest and personal safety.
It would be unwelcome for a friend to suggest that her obese cousin stop eating fast food, for instance, if her cousin checked in at a McDonald's on Facebook. No one would find it charming to read the comment, "Fast food is processed garbage and is a big contributor to heart disease — check out these statistics!" with a link to several articles because everyone can agree that it's wrong for adults to police other adults' diets.
Even if someone purchased an item with a poor consumer reports score, like a particular mattress brand, it wouldn't make much sense for friends to "call out" their peers (or strangers) online for making a "bad" purchase. Most of the time, it's understood that people should be, and in fact are, free to make their own choices, whether positive or negative, without fielding outside interference from nosy friends and relatives.
In the case of car seats, all of those rules go out the window (usually at a speed of 85 mph).
The primary reason car seat warriors (or "worriers," depending on your perspective) get on people's nerves is that they're so damn proud of themselves, they can't even see how sanctimonious they're being. They see themselves as taking up a noble cause that will save lives, and nothing you or I or anyone else can say will get in the way of that mission.
That's probably because car crashes continue to be "the leading cause of death for children older than 3 in the U.S. and cause another 179,000 child injuries each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, child safety seats cut death risk by 71 percent for infant passengers and 54 percent for toddlers between the ages of 1 and 4 — if they are used properly." Those numbers show that with safety education and careful instruction (or in the case of car seat warriors, constant reminding), kids' lives can actually be deeply impacted by the correction of car seat straps, rear-facing positioning and other adjustments that some parents simply don't know to make. Or maybe they know, but they don't adhere to the guidelines. Or maybe they want to adhere to the guidelines, but they don't know seasonal facts like "don't strap in your toddler with his puffy coat on."
For car seat enthusiasts, social media provides the broadest platforms for promotion of these "fun facts," but it also provides people with an opportunity to ride their friends' — or strangers' — asses about car seat safety. In other words, some people use social media to run pages dedicated to all things car seat-related, providing updated regulations, recommended manufacturers and suggestions for how to keep kids safe, while other people just nit-pick and troll photos to find something to criticize.
As you can see in the screen-grab above, Amanda sees herself as a do-gooder, which is fine, but she also sees herself as being slightly superior to others, which is not so fine. As you mentioned in your question, M., photos on Facebook aren't always the most accurate representations of reality. And even if they are, we don't know the situation. Maybe a picture was taken while the car was parked and the straps hadn't been tightened yet. Maybe the child isn't rear-facing but is older than you think he is. Maybe parents should be able to post pictures of their kids sitting in their car seats without getting lessons from Amanda and 20 other Amandas.
Policing people's behaviors, actions, belief systems and language may be considered "helpful" by some people's standards, but not everyone likes being told what to do. Parents in particular don't enjoy being told how to parent because they're already catching so much shit about everything that comes with having a baby from the moment a pregnancy is announced. Women are told what they can and can't eat, and what they should or shouldn't do during birth; by the time the baby is in the world, there are virtual lists of unsolicited instructions and waves of advice coming from friends, relatives, doctors, nurses and complete strangers.
Sometimes it seems like since car seat warriors put all of their energy behind one big effort, they're not really taking parents' feelings or day-to-day experiences into account before scolding them about how they're doing it all wrong. For some parents, the immediate response, even if it's not uttered aloud, is always, "Mind your own fucking business." But somewhere between that reflexive parental rage and car seat warriors' obsession with safety could very well be a space of warm guidance. It may be that the warriors should take a step back and examine their approach in order to achieve their goals and start the right conversations.
So with regard to your question, M., I can see why you wouldn't want to say anything to this friend. There is probably no stopping her from analyzing pictures of kids in car seats and commenting on other people's photos. But if you see her commenting on a certain image and you get the impression that she's off-base, I think you can gently tell her so. Or send a direct message to the parent instead, letting her know you think she's doing a good job and you're sorry some people are so judgmental. If you can't change the constant flow of critiques coming from the car seat warrior, it's possible you can counter some of the comments with praise for what the parents are doing well.
Car seat safety can be a matter of life or death, but that doesn't mean parents should be condescended to every time they post a picture on the internet. There are effective methods to communicate safety guidelines to parents, but prodding them online in response to a photo probably isn't one of them.
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