One recent day I went to a conference and heard Evan Spiegel, the 25-year-old CEO of Snapchat, proclaim, “We’ve made it very hard for parents to embarrass their children on Snapchat.” Suddenly I understood why my two older children (ages 20 and 17) spend 83% of their waking hours on that app with the little ghost icon that lets you send out a video of yourself doing something weird or marginally funny because it will disappear seconds after it’s viewed. I am a mom and a social-media stalker, and the mere fact of my existence makes my children feel embarrassed. Until Snapchat, that is. Now the tables are turned.
While I am well aware that technology makes my life much easier, I also just want to go live at Downton Abbey, in Season 1, before Lord Grantham installs the telephone. (Because you know how it goes: as soon as Lord Grantham installs the phone, then widows have trysts with potential husbands in hotels and women start running London magazines and next thing you know: Snapchat.) Alas, there is no returning to the days when I would be expected to wear a tiara to dinner, and so I must adapt. Meet my children where they live, as it were.
Here is my contract with my kids: I pay for your phone, I get to follow you on social media. I agree never to comment, like, share or otherwise announce my presence in their digital lives. I am there but not there. And I will keep my opinions to myself. Until I can’t.
A few months back I was conducting “virtual oversight” of a friend of my son’s, a classmate he was suddenly spending a lot of time with but whom I had never met. I saw on the friend’s Twitter profile page a photo of my child doing something spectacularly stupid. I texted my son and said, “You should tell [whatshisname] to remove that photo of you. Your guidance counselor can see that picture, and so can your teachers and college admissions people.” Oh, nervy mother! The gall of me, his parent, trying to protect him from his own impulsive, shortsighted, prefrontally challenged teenage self! We went through the sadly familiar motions of an extended text fight (shouldn’t there be a name for that? fexting?) about boundaries, how I don’t respect them, he has no privacy, I ruin everything, I am so embarrassing, blah blah blah. But within hours the friend took the photo down. And, naturally, made all of his tweets private.
In the name of protective motherhood, I chase my children around social media like Alice in Wonderland down the rabbit hole. But every time I land someplace where the story starts to make sense, my kids change the narrative. As soon as I understood Facebook, they fled to Twitter. Once I got Twitter, they escaped to Instagram. To Luddites like me, each platform is a little less intuitive than the last. And then there’s the Cheshire Cat that is Snapchat. Talk about there but not there. After I listened to Evan Spiegel (looks like he’s 12, flies helicopters for fun, curiouser and curiouser!), I asked my 17-year-old if he would teach me how to use Snapchat. Emphatic shake of the head. I asked him for his user name. “Mom!” he huffed. “Can’t I have one place on social media where you don’t follow me?”
Once upon a time, teenagers had diaries with tiny locks to keep their secrets from prying moms. Apparently this is healthy behavior when it comes to developing a sense of self and establishing an identity that is separate from that of the two people responsible for your DNA. But now diaries are extinct. And instead of a diary key, all Mom needs–all anybody needs–is a user name.
Because the child sitting right next to me (physically, if not virtually) refused to give me a Snapchat lesson, I turned to my college-student son, who happens to be studying in another country, for help. Thus ensued a humbling encounter we might call “Middle-Aged Woman Lying in Bed Sees How Old She Looks in Selfies, Plus Lots of Photos of Paella.” But even after his patient instruction, I still couldn’t really figure it out, not to mention grasp the appeal. Two days later I got a message from Snapchat about … how to use Snapchat. Did my sons send help my way? Was my account flagged because I put in my age when I registered (setting off a Clueless Older Person alert)?
Note to Evan Spiegel and my children: even getting that app-generated little tutorial did not help me understand. So I suppose you have won. Because my ineptitude did make me a little … embarrassed. Which, perhaps, is the point.
This appears in the March 07, 2016 issue of TIME.