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  • Bryna Sampey, IBCLC

Parenting In the Social Media Age

Social media has come a long way and, for better or worse, it's actually changing how we parent.

When we become parents, our sense of self (as a parent) is as nascent as the babies we hold in our arms. As we navigate life with a newborn, we look to our surroundings as we have always done. Today, though, that usually means Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram instead of the park or the grocery store. We follow parenting icons and influencers in addition to one another. We have widened our lens to include ourselves, ourselves as parents, and ourselves as parents on the internet.

Research has shown us that lived experience and an established sense of self are the most protective factors from the negative influences of social media and digital interaction with peers. That means that, like other times in our lives when we are in the throes of self-discovery, we are not as well-protected from the potential negative effects of social media influence when we are new to parenting.

The internet is crucial to our day to day interactions with our partners, peers, and professional support (especially as a lot of our patient/physician contact is via online portal). We also know that our digital interaction is prone to "editing" and the less self-confidence we have in ourselves, the more prone we are to digital editing.

What is editing?

Editing is the process by which we quite literally change the things we find less appealing about ourselves in order to present a more ideal picture online. As new parents often tend to already be isolated in the US, this editing can have particularly negative effects on our self-esteem. Our new identities as parents aren't yet well-protected by the sturdy shell of confidence gained by experience, so when we take the images and shares of our peers at face value- even while editing ourselves- we tend to compare ourselves to edited versions of our peers while forgetting about the editing. This means we wind up feeling pretty crappy about not living up to an unattainable standard that is make-believe in the first place. Honestly, it feels as confusing as it reads!

When we edit ourselves online, we tend to put up a facade of capability- even when we don't feel particularly capable. Taking careful pictures to only capture the clean spots of the house, for example, is a way of projecting the ability to maintain a together household while doing the work of child-rearing, and perhaps working outside the home as well.

"Put the iPad down, sweetie and smiiiile! Keep it out of the frame, ok? Just like that! Perfect!"

Not only does this serve to make our peer-to-peer comparison more daunting (seriously, who keeps a perfect home with a baby, older kids, and a job?), but this also sends a message that we need less help or support from those who care for us- such as partners or parents. This can, in turn, result in less needed support. Research tells us that the more insecure and unsupported a person feels, the more this editing behavior continues-- it can be a vicious cycle that leads to isolation and neglect.

Not surprisingly, the more isolated a new parent feels, the more they reach out to the online community for a sense of community. Unfortunately, social interaction in person has a different effect on the brain than socialization online, so the feelings of isolation can be perpetuated without in-person interaction to support the interaction online. As a parent seeks social-time, this can lead to distraction from baby, interruption in bonding, and dissatisfaction in new parenthood.

Flowery verbiage aside, this T-Roos quote is super accurate.

Editing gets even more dangerous when it comes to those with whom we should be most honest-- our healthcare providers. Minimizing symptoms to seem stronger or more adept at parenting, glossing over serious concerns for fear of coming off as panicky or incompetent, or outright lying for fear of being admonished or judgment can have disastrous results.

Take bedsharing, for example. The anti-bedsharing campaign messages across the US are simple: "Sharing your bed with your baby is dangerous, and if you do it, your baby might die." There is no nuance in these messages. As a result, it's been shown that more than half of new parents lie to their pediatricians about where their baby sleeps. The message broadcast to new parents is that they'll be judged, yelled at, or punished for admitting they sleep with their babies on occasion (which more than 85% of new parents do).

Yes, this is a real public health campaign, and it illustrates just what's wrong with the patient/provider relationship in the US today.

Bedsharing doesn't have to be dangerous-- there are safe ways to participate in this activity with your baby (and even get more sleep!), but without the nuance in delivery-- without the trust in new parents as adults capable of informed decision-making-- the message gets flattened to an unhelpful scare tactic and the trust in the relationship is severed. As a result, many new parents will respond by lying to escape the potential perceived conflict at the next check-up. There is also no incentive to tell the truth when our provider demonstrates that they have no faith in us to follow moderate to complex safety instructions to safely share our beds with our babies.

If a parent who really shouldn't be bedsharing (perhaps they're on medication that makes it unsafe) is lying to their pediatrician about bedsharing, how can they have an honest conversation about risks and safety measures? They can't. So maybe the parent who is bedsharing in an unsafe way goes home, and baby is more at risk than before. Or maybe a parent sleeps with baby on the couch in an effort to avoid falling asleep in the bed with baby. We know couch sleeping is far more dangerous than bedsharing, but because they weren't able to have an honest conversation, the parent goes home without that knowledge and unknowingly puts baby at a higher risk.

"Why do you both have stethoscopes? What's going on, here?"

But I'm not scared of my doctor.

Fear isn't the only reason for provider mistrust. Misogyny, racism (subtle & overt), inadequate time with providers, and inconsistent or inaccurate medical advice also break down the trusting relationship between patients and providers, and are often the reason people stop going in altogether.* This doesn't remove the need for help and advice in decision-making, so the parents take to the internet.

And the internet is happy to oblige! There are forums and Facebook pages full of advice. Depending on our age, education level, relative privilege, and access to resources, this can go really well-- or not so much. Research shows that parents rely on the internet for help in making some of the biggest parenting decisions: circumcision, breastfeeding, vaccinations, car seat safety, schooling and sleeping.

"Hey guys: I posted these online in another group, and my co-worker's roommate's mom who is a nurse said that ultrasound can make my baby deaf. Is that true?"

What do we do with this knowledge?

In an ideal world, we would all be empowered with evidence-based information to make our own choices in the child-bearing years. We are all very different, with unique life experiences that should be considered alongside the advice of trusted professionals with our best interest at heart to shape our decision-making. In reality, we make these decisions based on information we hear from our care providers, what we read online, what our friends and family are doing, and how much we trust our care establishment. There is also a lot of emotion that inevitably colors our judgment. What is right for someone we barely know may not necessarily be right for us, but our feelings of exclusion from an online community can absolutely motivate us toward a different choice than we otherwise would have made.

Why are we going to social media in the first place?

Generally, we go to social media to nurture in-person relationships, enhance social interaction and, often, receive affirmation that the decisions we are making as new parents are good ones. When we don't have strong personal ties to back this up, our interactions tend to change to attention-seeking activities rather than relationship enhancement. These end up leaving us feeling unfulfilled and frustrated at ourselves for having wasted time on Facebook when we could have been doing other, more important things. People often mistake the time spent on social media as self-care, which can lead to a deficit of both interpersonal interaction and self-care. Add to that aspirations for an impossible Pinterest-worthy postpartum, increased isolation and desperation for acceptance and affirmation, and you have the makings of a pretty potentially-toxic environment.

Why do we stay when it hurts us?

Quite literally, it's addictive. We get isolated from those around us, and search for more social interaction online.Without a strong in-person network, we can get mired in an unending feedback loop of comparison, feelings of negativity, and repeated participation in hopes of a positive interaction next time. We keep looking for something we aren't going to find online, because even though technology has come a long way, nothing has been able to replace face-to-face interaction. Yet. I'm sure it's coming. Give it time.

"One day we can be best friends for real."

Encouraging, hey?

It's not all bad. The good news is that social media interaction can be beneficial when accompanied with in-person interaction, and when we are protected by a strong sense of self and confidence in our experiences. To this end, finding a new parent group to attend in-person can be extremely beneficial for mental health and self-confidence.

Important to note: The ability to attend these groups varies across regions, community, and a feeling of safety. Groups that aren't inclusive or culturally aware do worse than just isolate parents in need of community support; They cut them off from a significantly beneficial influence, and an important resource for resilience in parenting.

With great power, comes great responsibility... With this knowledge comes the responsibility of community organizations and care providers to create these spaces in areas where they don't currently exist so that all new parents can access this really beneficial and protective resource in their communities. Not just from low self-efficacy and self esteem, isolation, neglect, and disengagement from their babies, but perinatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders (PPMADs) are common in households across the country. Moreover, in households where one parent has a PPMAD, their partner is 50% more likely to also develop one. Birth trauma is very real, as is the resulting PTSD. There are a million more excellent, terrifying, and very motivating reasons to ensure our communities are supporting new parents in person. Phew! Let's end on a high note and say that there's also nothing nicer than a room full of babies learning how to crawl from one another. We can't help but learn from one another-- it's just what we humans do! Let's just keep doing it in person, as well as online.

See you on the interwebs (and hopefully in person at our Nursing Parents' Circle)!

See what I did, there? *This isn't to say that all HCP's are bad! Many well-intentioned providers are simply not given enough time per patient, or enough continuing education opportunities to fill in the gaps left by their training (like breastfeeding education or cultural humility training, for starters). There are so many wonderful MD, ND, DO, NP, PCA, CNM, CPM, and IBCLCs out there (and many many more capital letters)! There are also folks who are doing real harm out of ignorance or oblivion on the daily, too.

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