Anxiety and defying common sense feed clicks.
“Throwing balls to your dog teaches obsessive behaviors and will cause permanent damage to their bones and joints.”
That was the last straw.
Loki, my pandemic pup, is involved in a lot of dog sports. He is a natural at FastCAT racing, we do Rally obedience, he’s training to be a therapy dog, and he can do dozens of silly pet tricks. My social media feeds are filled with posts about dogs. Most of them tell me what an awful pet owner I am.
- You’re talking to your dog too much.
- The popular leash you use for walks in the woods will kill your dog and cause permanent scarring.
- Common high-end pet foods will poison your dog.
And the one that just pushed me over the edge—throwing balls to my dog will cause him irreparable harm.
Why Does Social Media Feed Fear?
I was recently interviewed by the Washington Post about parenting. Specifically, several experts, including myself, were asked about “sittervising.” Yes, it’s just what it sounds like—watching your child while sitting down instead of playing with them or obsessively following them around the playground. In other words, letting them play.
All the experts said, “Yup, good thing. Kids need some space.” The author of the piece, myself, and seemingly all of the commenters’ reaction to this new parenting trend was the same: “Well, duh.”
Yet “sittervising” hit several major newspapers and has been trending on Instagram and TikTok since August. Why?
The answer is clicks. The same reason that my feed is filled with scary warnings that perfectly normal things sensible dog owners do are dangerous.
The Stranger the Better
Think about these three headlines:
- Dogs need daily exercise.
- Feeding dogs too many treats can lead to vomiting.
- Throwing balls to dogs causes obsessive behavior.
Which would you click on?
Headline 1 is something you probably know—it doesn’t make you curious and it isn’t worrying, so you’re unlikely to seek more information.
Headline 2 is worrying, but not really surprising. I might click to see what they mean by “too many.” (I was surprised to read that my dog’s favorite liver treats are only supposed to be given a few at a time, several times a day. Oops.). A post on common human foods poisonous to dogs—chocolate, grapes—is more likely to get clicks.
But 3? I would definitely click. Why?
First, it annoyed me. What’s wrong with throwing balls to dogs? Dogs love balls. My dog really loves balls.
Second, it made me anxious. My dog runs over to me every afternoon, ball in mouth, ears up, looking hopefully at the door. When we get to the park, he is there, poised, ready, and eager to run. He’ll happily play catch for an hour. Is he obsessed? Is this compulsive behavior? Is this bad for him?
Third, and this is the key to the reason we see so many posts like this, throwing balls to dogs is something lots of people do. The more common the behavior—in other words, the more innocuous and seemingly safe it is—the more people are likely to click on the article. Why? Because it’s relevant to us.
If the headline read, “Dying your dog’s fur can lead to unnecessary vet bills,” most of the people who clicked would be people who dye their dogs’ fur or those considering it. That’s not a lot of folks in the world of clicks.
But if the headline read “Can bagging dog poop make you sick?” (The answer is no, by the way. Cleaning up dog feces reduces the likelihood of illness for both people and pets.) I’d click on that.
An ideal clickbait ad:
- Catches your interest.
- Raises your anxiety about something important to you (your pet, your child, your relationship, your finances).
- Is highly relevant (something you do or are considering doing).
Since most responsible dog owners pick up dog waste, no one wants to get sick, and it’s kind of yucky, a post asking whether something you do several times a day is potentially dangerous is likely to be a popular post.
Parenting articles are similarly anxiety-producing. The sittervising piece was typical. It tells parents they should have been worried about letting their children play alone in their own home while they did other activities like watching TV, reading, or cooking dinner. I find it hard to believe that any parent has not engaged in sittervising.
This makes it a perfect clickable piece. It is relevant to many parents. It is anxiety-producing. And it annoys us, because we are being criticized for doing a common sense, safe, and normal behavior. Interestingly, the sittervising trend tells us that we probably were guilty for doing something that the article and experts say we should never have been guilty about. And that most of us were not guilty about.
Many parenting articles are like that. Does your child use social media? (Over 98% of U.S. adolescents do.). Worry! And find out why to worry.
Look at your own feed. Is it feeding your anxiety?