Mama’s Always on Stage: Social Media and the Psychological Spotlight


In addition to being a shower blogger (see post from two weeks ago), I am also an exerblogger – I talk through blog ideas when I exercise with my trainer Blair. Mostly it’s to take my mind off the unpleasant task of exercising, but really it’s because I have a captive audience – Blair – who is my 20-something sounding board. Blair is not a huge social media user, but like many of his generation, it’s just part and parcel of his social life and the way he thinks about the world. The topic last week was the psychological spotlight.

The notion is that when we use social media, the things we do and say, the way we look, and the things we find interesting seem to have a heightened importance and to be under scrutiny. That is, we know that our lives can be transmitted (by us or others) at any time to the social network, to be seen, heard, and evaluated. So, psychologically, we’re always on stage, in the spotlight. And if we’re always on stage, then maybe, on some level, we are acting and not being fully authentic. Using social media can sometimes feel like being a celebrity walking down the street who knows that the paparazzi are always waiting around the corner.

And this is what is new about social media compared to previous ways of connecting with others – we can share just about anything, via a wide range of media, extremely easily.  We can be seen and heard whenever we want.   And, in turn, we can be nosy parkers and learn a lot about others whenever we want. Decades ago, in her collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that photography creates in people a “chronic voyeuristic relation” to the world around them. But Ms. Sontag did not imagine the level to which social media could take both our voyeuristic and exhibitionistic impulses.

My 3-year-old already gets this, although he doesn’t yet use social media. For him, the impulse to document and to be seen is fully entrenched – “Mama, take a video,” he says, every time he is doing something “cool.” This could be dancing, building blocks, making a funny face, kissing his sister, anything. And every video on demand (that is, he demands the video) ends with my son walking towards me and the device I’m holding to video him saying, “Can I see it? Can I see it?”

And this is what gets me wondering. Am I raising my son to be more self-conscious, more of an exhibitionist, and less authentic about what he says and does, because he knows he will be documented? Because he feels that he is on stage? Does he think he’s special just because he’s being recorded? Maybe not – all kids like to be seen, and among other things, it’s super cute and fun. But the ease of documentation and of sharing with others has taken this natural impulse to a whole new level.

This issue is similar to the debate about self-publishing discussed in a New York Times article over the weekend. The question raised was this:  when parents pay to make their children “published authors,” are they giving children a false sense of self-esteem to the point of self-aggrandizement? Are we ironically, not preparing them for the rigors and tough knocks and rejections of the real world by making everything too easy?  The self-esteem issue here is central because these published child authors feel famous, feel seen because their books are read. They are on stage.

I think there are no clear answers to these issues. I do, however, think that most of us would agree that being on stage is a deeply rooted impulse in our culture today – from reality television to You Tube to Facebook, this has been going on for a long time. Think back to America’s Funniest Home Videos (wait, is that still on?).  I’m not saying this impulse is new, or necessarily bad, but the more central the psychological spotlight becomes to how we all operate, the more we need to take time to understand what it means.

6 thoughts on “Mama’s Always on Stage: Social Media and the Psychological Spotlight

  1. brilliant and insightful, tracy! you are saying things i’m recognizing as true, raising important questions that had been bubbling and irritating, just below the threshold of my awareness — thank you!

  2. This really resonates, and also makes me think about Wendy Mogul’s excellent book about parenting, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, which among other things discusses the perils of creating a world in which every child is “special” and “a star,” and how that can create unrealistic expectations and subsequent disappointment later in life. Would love to hear your thoughts on her book sometime. Definitely worth the read!

    1. I’ve been meaning to read that book! Thanks for the reminder. I think a lot of developmentalists are thinking about this issue. There was a long period in which self-esteem was king – everyone thought that unless your kids always “felt good” about themselves they would somehow be damaged. But perhaps we took it a bit too far….

  3. Tracy, your blog post reminded me of this post over at Grantland, “Instagram and Digital Classism” ( that’s examining the class divide inherent in social media. I really resonated with the Sontag quote in light of this excerpt from the Grantland post:
    “It’s easy to forget what a disruptive technology that digital photography has been, not just when it comes to quality, consumer usability, and the creation of affordable price points, but in the way our relationship with images changed when it became a little bit too easy for EVERYONE to take a picture. All of a sudden, your aunt was whipping out her digital camera at a chain restaurant, offering to send everyone in the family a high-resolution photo of the latest family meal. Some girl you went to high school with managed to take 100 pictures at a tacky club in the suburbs where you went to high school. Even that person you thought you respected took an accidentally depressing picture of their meal and tried to pretend they were a ‘foodie.'”

    1. Really interesting article! This reminds me of t-shirts we saw all over Bangkok when we visited in 2003 – “Same, same, but different.” We never completely understood what it meant, but since then have constantly quoted it. I feel like life online is just like this – same, same, but different. How we create identity, how we feel special and understood. The notion of digital classicism is spot on, I think. Thanks so much for making the connection!

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