in the murky On sleepless nights after my son was born, I spent an awful lot of time looking at my phone. Too tired to read, too upset to even do a podcast, I distracted myself with TikToks, tweets and Instagram posts. Social media has suppressed everything related to babies, from ads for “choking devices” to tips on how to introduce your dog to a baby. Most new parents who go online see a flood of baby content; at this point, it’s creepy but unremarkable. My digital footprint made it especially easy for algorithms to push me onto the internet of moms, as I compulsively Googled questions about pregnancy (“can a baby punch a hole through the placenta”) and lurked on too many parenting forums. Joining Mom’s Internet was, for the most part, reassuring. A step in the right direction, like dutifully swallowing a prenatal vitamin.
But something on my screen has continually surprised and disturbed me in this first year of parenthood. During the quiet sleep I spent scrolling through my feeds, I came across posts about babies and children who are sick, dying or dead. As I watch recipe breakdowns and makeovers at home on TikTok, videos of mothers grieving the untimely deaths of their children pop up that are impossible to put down. My Instagram research page often suggests accounts focused on or commemorating babies with severe medical conditions and birth defects. My husband has found me looking at my phone and crying over kids I don’t know so many times that he (gently, sensibly) suggested a social media break.
Despite the visceral distress they cause, these videos keep popping up on my screen for a reason: because I’m watching them. Enchanting. I remember the names and conditions of these vulnerable children, whether they are living with San Felipe syndrome or undergoing chemotherapy, whether they have just died of myocarditis or SIDs. I remember their siblings and favorite things. I’m checking them out. If they died, I check their parents. A nosy tourist in the land of sick children, I absorbed the morbid lingo of digitally mediated death, like “so-and-so got its wings” and the eerily popular “happy heavenly birthday!” All social platforms, at their core, require engagement; I’m so engaged, I’m shaking.
Do I consume content about sick and dead babies like entertainment, the same way one might watch a horror movie? I think my behavior here overlaps somewhat with the habits of ardent true-crime fans, who pile up gruesome messages about real-life violence—including child abductions—with such enthusiasm that they’ve fueled a boom in content for all things murder and worse. There is a theory that the popularity of true crime among women, in particular, is related to their fear of becoming a victim of crime. Watching can provide a cathartic moment, an opportunity to release pent-up anxiety. It is undoubtedly related to my anxiety.
And yet the sick children in my food bring me no release. I feel obligated to feel sorry for them when I find out about them, but if I could press a button to hide all content related to sick or dead children, I would. It’s only when it’s served to me that I feel the need to watch. Algorithms clearly smelled my nerves after giving birth. When I was eight months pregnant, the doctors told us that my son had a congenital kidney defect, severe enough that we prepared for surgery shortly after birth. Shortly before his appointment, we learned that this initial diagnosis was wrong. His kidneys were fine. But knowing this didn’t drain the bottomless reservoir of fear that was building up in my guts. Nothing could. And to see these precious babies suffer the fate we escaped from seems to me like turning the hose full force and letting that tank overflow.
Most of these the accounts are managed by the parents. In many cases, they already documented their children extensively on social media, so admitting to illness or medical incidents simply followed the logic of their lives to share everything. In other cases, they seem to have created accounts specifically to tell their sad story. The impulse to feel less alone in a dark hour is painfully connected, as is the desire to teach people the reality of situations that are often sanitized or ignored. Sharing about dark times can be a channel to connect with other people who are facing similar conflicts. It’s not uncommon behavior — so many terminally ill and end-of-life caregivers talk about it on TikTok that there’s now a nickname for it, “DeathTok.” And while the internet makes these conversations easier, it’s not as if social media invented public grieving, or even public grieving by snapping a picture 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 that they existed.