Modern parenting in an online world

2 October 2017
Interview with Jessica McGinty. Credit: Rory Banwell

Parenting has always been difficult, but parenting in a world where online and social media outlets pit parents against each other is even harder.

Granted, the Western world has lower infant mortality rates and a greater understanding of post-natal depression, but the highly-stylised and manufactured images of parenting that are offered up on social media can often lead to parents feeling helpless and alone.

Hayley Dymock is a mother of one from Perth, Western Australia.  She joined an online mother group shortly before giving birth to her first child, hoping to find support and comraderie.

“At first, the group was very supportive and we all got along so well. Our children were all born about six weeks apart so we really felt like we were all in it together.

“As our online group got bigger, the posts got more competitive and mums were silently fighting for the title of the most creative, most doting or most busy,” she said.

After a year of persisting with the group, Ms Dymock eventually exited saying that her mental health was being negatively affected by the one-upping in the group.

With so many differing modern parenting styles, there are highly specialised groups all over social media for parents who subscribe to particular parenting frameworks.

The ‘crunchy parents’ who practice extended breastfeeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping and natural living. ‘Gentle’ and ‘attachment’ parenting, where parents promote the strong bond between mother and child and positive re-enforcement rather than punishment. And the Tizzy Hall devotees who let their children ‘cry it out’ to try and ‘sleep train’ them.

All different. All with their own rules. And groups devoted to them are all over social media.

These groups allow those who subscribe to similar philosophies to come together and share wisdom.

Sounds great right? Sure, until you dare step outside the carefully defined lines of that framework.

Like Ms Dymock, Kayte McDougall from Sydney's Inner West is a first-time mother. She said that after the birth of her daughter, she dabbled in online support groups looking for the ‘right one’.

“I was looking for advice about weaning my daughter off breastfeeding as I returned to work. I was in a group specifically for breastfeeding advice so thought it would be the best place to ask but as soon as I mentioned that she was only seven months old, they all turned on me," Ms McDougall said. 

“Even the admin of the group jumped on me. They seemed to be the most active and immediately commented saying I was potentially doing emotional damage to my child.

“That was the point I left.”

Despite Ms Dymock and Ms McDougall having negative experiences, not all parents do. Jessica McGinty is a mother of three children who has been in many different parenting groups.

“I’ve got a parenting group at the moment that’s my due-in group for my youngest… and they’re amazing," she said.

Due-in groups are those formed by mothers expecting children at the same time.

"Like, it’s the most supportive group of women that I’ve ever met and it’s really, really empowering,” she said.

Ms McGinty has found that finding support through women who are at the same stages of parenting to be the most effective.

A 2012 Canadian study concluded that “online support groups provide women experiencing postpartum depression a safe place to connect with others and receive information, encouragement and hope”.

However, another study published in May this year found that using social media as a tool of comparison can lead to issues with self esteem and, in the context of motherhood, shows specifically how social media can be problematic.

Beyond Blue says that peri-natal depression can affect up to one in 10 women and post-natal depression affects one in seven women, one in 10 fathers will develop post-natal depression and one to two in 1000 women may develop post-partum psychosis.

Statistics show how prevalent depression related to birth is in Australia. Credit: Rory Banwell

Psychologist Alexandra Rodwell says that it is known that social support can act as a buffer against mental illness and is used as a predictor of wellbeing/good mental health outcomes but for these groups to be effective, they must provide balance.

“Online parenting groups cannot act as a forum solely for co-rumination about negative aspects of parenthood. It is also ideal to receive support from varied sources such as family, friends and other parents in real life,” she said.

So, while online parenting groups may have their role in modern parenting, it is imperative that you find a support group in real life and use online group to supplement real life encounters.