Woman's Open Letter After Her Son's Stillbirth Captures How Painful Social Media Can Be When Your Child Dies


Editor's Note

If you’ve lost a child, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Many of us share our lives on social media, and in return, those companies tailor ads to us based on what we post and search. When we experience a loss, like Gillian Brockell did when her son was stillborn, these advertisements can still show up, unaware of the loss but serving as a painful reminder of it.

In a now-viral open letter to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Brockell, a video editor for The Washington Post, called for tech companies to be more aware of the advertisements they display, especially about sensitive topics like parenting.

In her letter, Brockell shares how social media companies had seen her posts about thanking others for coming to her baby shower and using hashtags about baby bumps.  “You probably saw me googling ‘holiday dress maternity plaid’ and ‘baby safe crib paint.’ And I bet Amazon even told you my due date, January 24, when I created an Amazon registry,” she wrote.

Brockell continued, wondering how social media couldn’t pick up on everything that came after that:

But didn’t you also see me googling ‘is this braxton hicks?’ and ‘baby not moving’? Did you not see the three days of silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me? And then the announcement with keywords like ‘heartbroken’ and ‘problem’ and ‘stillborn’ and the two-hundred teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?

Each time Brockell opened her social media to distract her from her grief, it was the same as before she left the hospital “with the emptiest arms in the world” — filled with ads for maternity items. Even when Brockell would click “I don’t want to see this ad” and let the algorithm know it was no longer relevant to her, the algorithms took that to mean she’d given birth, and a slew of new baby ads arrived.

“It decides you’ve given birth, assumes a happy result, and deluges you with ads for the best nursing bras,” she wrote.

The last ad, the one that prompted the open letter, was the “lowest tracking blow of them all.” She received an email from Experian, encouraging her to register her son to track his credit over his lifetime.

“I could not believe I was getting spam emails to track my dead child’s credit,” she told Buzzfeed.

In a reply to the tweet of her open letter, Rob Goldman, vice president of advertisement at Facebook, apologized and suggested Brockell set up ad parameters that can block advertisements related to sensitive subjects like parenting.

Brockell replied that she turned on the ad-blocking feature, but found the process confusing. She suggested having keywords in social media posts, like “stillbirth,” prompt a break in ads, which Goldman said they’d consider along with other possible solutions.

“We never asked for the pregnancy or parenting ads to be turned on,” Brockell wrote in a piece for The Washington Post. “These tech companies triggered that on their own, based on information we shared. So what I’m asking is that there be similar triggers to turn this stuff off on its own, based on information we shared.”

Brockell added on Twitter that the ad-blocking feature does not work well, noting she received ads about adoption after setting up the block. One person tweeted to Brockell and Goldman that he turned off ads for pet-related products after losing his dog, but it did nothing to stop the ads. Goldman said the system needs improvement.

If you’ve experienced a loss or need a way to avoid triggers, you can set up the ad-blocking feature in hopes of lessening certain advertisements. To do this, go into your Facebook settings, click “ads” and then “hide ad topics.” Currently, Facebook only has three topics you can hide: alcohol, pets and parenting.

You can read Brockell’s full letter below: 

Dear Tech Companies:

I know you knew I was pregnant. It’s my fault, I just couldn’t resist those Instagram hashtags — #30weekspregnant, #babybump. And, stupid! I even clicked once or twice on the maternity-wear ads Facebook served up.

You surely saw my heartfelt thank-you post to all the girlfriends who came to my baby shower, and the sister-in-law who flew in from Arizona for said shower tagging me in her photos. You probably saw me googling “holiday dress maternity plaid” and “baby safe crib paint.” And I bet Amazon even told you my due day, January 24th, when I created an Amazon registry.

But didn’t you also see me googling “is this braxton hicks?’ and “baby not moving”? Did you not see the three days of silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me? And then the announcement with keywords like “heartbroken” and “problem” and “stillborn” and the two-hundred teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?

You see, there are 26,000 stillbirths in the U.S. every year, and millions more among your worldwide users; and let me tell you what social media is like when you finally come home from the hospital with the emptiest arms in the world, after you’ve spent days sobbing in bed, and pick up your phone for a couple minutes of distraction before the next wail. It’s exactly, crushingly, the same as it was when your baby was still alive. Pea in the Pod. Motherhood Maternity. Latched Mama. Every goddam Etsy tchotchke I was planning for the nursery.

And when we millions of brokenhearted people helpfully click “I don’t want to see this ad,” and even answer your “why?” with the cruel-but-true “It’s not relevant to me,” do you know what your algorithm decides, Tech Companies? It decides you’ve given birth, assumes a happy result, and deluges you with ads for the best nursing bras [I have cabbage leaves on my breasts because that is the best medical science has to offer to turn your milk off], tricks to get the baby to sleep through the night [I would give anything to hear him cry at all], and the best strollers to grow with your baby [mine will forever be 4 pounds, 1 ounce].

And then, after all that, Experian swoops in with the lowest tracking blow of them all: a spam email encouraging me to “finish registering your baby” (I never “started” but sure) to track his credit throughout the life he will never lead.

Please, Tech Companies, I implore you: If you’re smart enough to realize that I’m pregnant, that I’ve given birth, then surely you’re smart enough to realize that my baby died, and can advertise to me accordingly, or maybe just maybe, not at all.

Regards,

Gillian


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