In the bladder, nights without sleep after my son was born, I spent unholy time looking at my phone. Too tired to read, too nervous to handle a podcast at all, I distracted myself with TikToks, tweets and Instagram posts. Social media pushed everything baby, from ads for “chilling” gadgets to tips on how to introduce your dog to your infant. Most new parents who go online see a stream of baby content; at this point, it’s creepy, but not remarkable. My digital footprint made it particularly easy for the algorithms to push me onto the Mommy Internet when I forcibly googled pregnancy questions (“can baby kick hole through the placenta”) and peeked at too many parenting forums. Joining Mommy Internet felt mostly reassuring. A step in the right direction, as obligatory to swallow a prenatal vitamin.
But something on my screen has constantly surprised and rattled me in this first year of parenthood. In quiet nap times spent scrolling through my feeds, I have found myself overwhelmed by posts about babies and children who are sick, dying or dead. While I watch the collapse of recipes and home makeovers on TikTok, videos emerge from mothers mourning the untimely deaths of their children, which are impossible to flip away. My Instagram Explore page often suggests accounts that focus on or commemorate babies with serious health challenges and birth defects. My husband has walked in on me, looking at my phone and crying over children I do not know so many times that he (gently, reasonably) has suggested a break on social media.
Despite the visceral distress they evoke, these videos keep appearing on my screen for one reason: because I see them. Greedy. I remember the names and conditions of these vulnerable children, whether they are living with San Filippo syndrome or enduring chemotherapy, whether they have just died of myocarditis or SIDs. I remember their siblings and favorite things. I’m checking up on them. If they’re dead, I’ll check their parents. A tourist sniffing into the land of the sick children, I have absorbed the morbid language of digitally mediated death, which “so-and-so got its wings” and the eerily popular “Happy Heavenly Birthday!” All the social platforms require commitment at their core; I’m so engaged I’m shaking.
Do I ingest content about sick and dead babies like entertainment, in the same way that someone might watch a horror movie? There is a certain overlap, I think, in my behavior here and the habits of avid true-crime fans, who pick up grim broadcasts on real-life violence – including child abductions – with such enthusiasm that they have boosted a content boom for everything murder has. and gore. There is a theory that the popularity of genuine crime among women, in particular, is linked to their fear of falling victim to crime. Seeing it can provide a soothing moment, an opportunity to let go of pent-up worries. This is without a doubt associated with my anxiety.
And yet the sick children in my feed give me no release. I feel an obligation to mourn over them once I know about them, but if I could press one button to hide all content regarding sick or dead children, I would do so. It is only when it is served to me that I feel the urge to look. The algorithms clearly spun my postpartum nerves. When I was eight months pregnant, the doctors told us that my son had a congenital kidney defect, severe enough for us to prepare for surgery shortly after birth. Shortly before his term, we were told that this initial diagnosis was incorrect. His kidneys were fine. But learning this did not dry up the endless reservoir of fear that accumulated in my bowels. Nothing could. And to see these precious babies endure a fate we escaped feels like hitting a snake on full blast and letting that reservoir flow over.
Most of these the accounts are handled by the parents. In many cases, they already largely documented their children on social media, and therefore the part-everything logic of their lives followed in acknowledging illnesses or medical events. In other cases, they seem to have made the accounts specifically to tell their sad story. The impulse to feel less alone in a sad hour is painfully related, as is the desire to teach people the reality of situations that are often cleared or ignored. Sharing about dark times can be a channel to connect with other people experiencing similar strife. It’s not unusual behavior – there are so many people with deadly diseases and in end-of-life care who talk about it on TikTok that there is now a nickname for it, “DeathTok. “And although the Internet facilitates these conversations, it is not as the social networks invented public mourning, or even public mourning by capturing the image of a deceased child. In Victorian England, for example, people dressed up and posed their dead children for photographs in an attempt to document them, to show the world they existed.