The Parenting Media and You

Today's post is part of the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting. The theme, transition to parenthood, makes me sentimental even though I've been a parent for 12 years. This month Jessica Smock hosts the carnival on her blog School of Smock. Check out the links to the other posts there. You can catch us on Facebook too where we welome links to similarly evidence-based postsJoin us on Twitter (@MommaData) this Friday 1-2pm EST to talk new parenthood (#parentscience). 

I'm dedicating this to my bestie who with hubby just welcomed two little girls into this world. Bravo!

New mothers face an avalanche of information. Advice, news, official recommendations, the latest scientific discoveries.  It reaches parents from newspapers, books, television, the internet and elsewhere. This collective mass of supposed wisdom, The Parenting Media as I like to call it, includes journalists, researchers, medical professionals, psychologists, government officials and anybody else with a public platform trying to tell parents how to raise their kids or more likely, how they can really screw up.  The briefings for new moms cover everything from preeclampsia, postpartum depression, early brain development, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and colic to the more mundane like swaddling, storing breast milk and finding time to have sex again.

There is one topic, however parents likely will not encounter in all the tutorials and revelations.

The parenting media itself! 

The media lens rarely turns to the relentless parade of experts and quasi-experts flush with warnings and lessons. The famous pediatrician, the parenting columnist or other supposed leaders in the parent-sphere don't often bother talking about the proliferation of the parenting media.  A new parent, any parent for that matter, would be hard pressed to find any kind of meaningful conversation about all the tips, risks and studies. Before Googling toxic sunscreen or buying that happy baby book, parents should take a closer look at the parenting media.

It doesn't take a Ph.D. to realize the sheer amount of news and advice has sky-rocketed with more experts, knowledge, diseases and disorders than ever. Today is a far cry from the 1950s when pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock ruled the parenting landscape. His Baby and Childcare remained the second best-selling non-fiction book for 52 years outsold only by the bible.  Amazon's parenting and relationship section hosts 126,816 selections right now and that pales in comparison to the other offerings on the internet.  I haven't been able to find a good estimate of the number of parenting websites but if Google search results are any indication, parents have more webpages than they could read between running to speech therapy and thawing dinner. Check out the number of search results.
parenting health: 16,800,000

child health: 1,600,000,000
ear infection: 14,900,000
vaccines: 23,500,000
breastfeeding: 26,700,000
Now it won't come as a surprise that most American parents turn to the internet for answers.  Surveys find about 70% have searched the internet at some point for child-related information.  I'm slightly surprised the number isn't higher but it is from a few years ago. A Yahoo! study found 86% of mothers-to-be searched the net for pregnancy info (cited here press release not online). The number of mommy bloggers alone has reached about 4 million and though they don't always write about kids a good portion do.
Given the reality of so many parents online amidst so much information I'm amazed nobody talks about it.  When's the last time you read about the state of the parenting media?  I haven't heard boo about it in the mainstream media lately or much anywhere else.  A few academics are amazed about this oversight too. In their study Parenting Gone Wired two researchers, yes women, note "the paucity of work on new mothers using the internet is unexpected since it is widely acknowledged that the use of the internet as a source of health information is increasing."  A small number of researchers have ventured into this scholarly void by examined the parenting media. Sure the field of parenting and the internet is in its infancy and some of the findings are already dated due to the pace of technology but it's a start.
Identifying the typical internet parent, cybermommy if you will, has been one of the most common empirical endeavors. Not groundbreaking but again, baby steps.  New parents and parents-to-be appear especially hungry for information on the web and cybermommy is a 30- to 35 year old first-time mom. Older parents or parents with older children first turn to books or professionals then the internet. Cybermommy heads online for both information and social support. 

For information she goes straight to a search engine for answers about child development and specific health conditions or illnesses. She might also head to her favorite parenting website or less often to one her friends recommended.  A small 2004 study out of Atlanta found women who work out of the home were more likely to go online for answers about specific parenting issues.  Stay-at-home mothers, in contrast, wanted to confirm their beliefs or get reassurance their kids were normal or that they were doing the right thing. Confirm their beliefs.......oh yeah red flag for those of us concerned with the accuracy of information online (hold that thought).   

Cybermommy's favorite haunts?  She prefers the big need I say commercial websites like and Yes, despite the very official name and all, the latter sells stuff, has ads, tries to make a profit, etc.  One study reported parents weren't very troubled by any potential conflicts between the commercial aspects and informational aspects of these sites. Mothers felt comfortable enough with the information presented on these sites and enjoyed the convenience of learning, shopping and socializing in one spot.  Although moms praised the quality of content on the geekier hang-outs, the university- or government-based websites, most found the content too dry or as one mom put it too much "journal level detail" and not enough "mom level detail."  Sadly the experts agree their sites aren't so hot.  A 2008 review concluded the content on better children's health websites though "accurate" was also largely "incomplete, unclear, or difficult to access."  
Ahh….the accuracy. 

And so now we turn to the elephant in the (play) room....the quality of parenting information. In your spare time (as if) Google fact-checking and children just for yucks. Or simply consider the recent disaster over vaccines and autism fueled by the spread of misinformation online. Take comfort, perhaps, in the fact some researchers have paid attention to accuracy. The first comprehensive study on parenting and the internet gathered up a bunch of these studies but found much of the accuracy-focused projects were conducted before 2005. Even the data-obsessed have appeared to have moved on, perhaps overwhelmed by the mass of (mis)information.
Most of the accuracy research has targeted specific topics such as illnesses or health practices and the news is not good.  For instance, studies examining breastfeeding found online information lacking in both depth of detail and accuracy. Only 7 of 30 websites evaluated for breastfeeding content in a 2006 study passed all the quality criteria set by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  British researchers came to a similarly dismal conclusion assessing quality of miscarriage information. A large meta-analytic study of the accuracy of health information on the internet that encompassed 5,941 websites concluded 70% of the investigations found evidence of inferior quality.  The accuracy studies have found problems ranging from plain incorrect or dated content and lack of cited empirical evidence to missing information about who wrote the posted content let alone why (i.e. motivations, biases, professional associations).

There's no reason to believe pages devoted to children's health or parenting would not be similarly compromised.  In fact, throw in articles on discipline, education or birth order (i.e. from the social sciences) and references to empirical evidence get rarer still and not because  research doesn't exist. It's often a challenge to track down the studies behind medical advice (online or otherwise) but even more so for issues rooted in the fields of psychology, sociology, education and economics if only because there's less of an effort made to provide sources.  I'm not sure why this is the case because it's relatively simple for writers to throw in a quick reference or two. Of course it's another more difficult job figuring out if it is relevant and quality research (issues beyond the scope of this post). Even if a study appears to be solid there is some evidence suggesting more than half of research findings might be wrong anyhow.
Do parents question the credibility of online experts and the accuracy of online information? Most voice some skepticism.  Atlanta researchers Bernhardt and Felter found parents start with uncovering the motives of the person or organization behind the websites but that information is not always transparent. So parents also rely on the domain name for a quick clue with .org and .edu sites perceived as more authentic and trustworthy.  Physicians and nurses garner more respect than non-professionals.  For less health-related topics (e.g., potty training, sleep) people find other parents trustworthy. Psychologists, educational specialists, take note. I suspect it's much easier to get away with spreading misinformation or flawed evidence when it comes to topics off the more medical spectrum, if only because parents trust other parents as much if not more than actual professionals.  Could someone please test this?

Now I hate to dump more stress, guilt and responsibility on moms, especially those new to motherhood but the media is not going to leave parents alone. Yes, the media should do a better job at conveying nuanced, accurate information in context. Journalists, editors, news organizations, university press offices, researchers, they could all make some changes but there's no turning back on the excessive safety alerts and recommendations. The anxieties and advice will fluctuate but not the volume so parents should be informed and ready. Along with a birth plan and layette, mothers-to-be should prepare their own media kit to cope with the impending storm. Honing a better sense of how to judge the accuracy of claims about kids is not as simple as picking out a stroller but it's well worth the ability to cut through the fluff and fear-mongering. I can't promise new mothers peace of mind but I guarantee the next study or risk will pop up faster than the ultra-light five-point harnessed, all-terrain eco stroller folded up at her feet.

Remember, you can find the carnival on Facebook too. Like us, comment or add a link to other evidence-based posts on new motherhood or fatherhood! Okay T., put the boob away, read this and get some sleep...xoxo.

Here’s a quick list of our contributors for this second edition of the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting:

The Transition to New Motherhood (Momma, PhD)
Bonding in Early Motherhood: When Angels Don’t Sing and the Earth Doesn’t Stand Still (Red Wine and Applesauce)
The Connection Between Poor Labour, Analgesia, and PTSD (The Adequate Mother)
For Love or Money: What Makes Men Ready for New Fatherhood (Matt Shipman)
What the Science Says (and Doesn’t Say) About Breastfeeding Issues, Postpartum Adjustment, and Bonding (Fearless Formula Feeder)
No, Swaddling Will Not Kill Your Baby (Melinda Wenner Moyer, Slate)
Sleep Deprivation: The Dark Side of Parenting (Science of Mom)
Reassessing Happiness Research: Are New Parents Really That Miserable? (Jessica Smock)
40 Long Days and Nights (Six Forty Nine)

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