The Downside to Internet Parenting

I’m a big advocate of the internet and how it has enhanced my experience as a mother. Through my online communities on Facebook and beyond, I’ve met some incredible parents who have shared their experiences. I’ve made fantastic friends who I never would have met otherwise. I’ve had conversations late into the night about the frustrations of motherhood and been made to feel less like I’m going crazy and more like I belong. I have found my village. It’s a wonderful resource, a fantastic element which many people find essential to their daily lives. However, with all great power (the power of the online community), comes great responsibility, and I feel that this is something which can be easily ignored in the heat of the sleep-deprived moment.

I share photos of my son online. Admittedly, less of them on the blog and other publicly accessed forums since he is now getting older, but I do put his face on the internet. I do so knowing that it is putting him out into a far wider audience than just our family and friends and it’s something I have made my peace with for the moment. It’s a debate which has been going on with many family bloggers that I’ve seen of late; how much of our children’s lives we share to the public without their consent (and at 2.5, he is not able to give his consent). As he’s gotten bigger, I’ve written less about personal experiences he’s had and more about my experiences of them – I’m sharing my life of which he is an element, not explicitly sharing his life. That is my decision. Other bloggers and people online share more or less. They have made this decision for their family and it is not my place to say who is right and who is wrong. As with much of parenting, what works for one family may not work for another, and it is our own responsibility to know where we fit in on that spectrum.

Privacy is a massive issue online, in a world where future employers are able to access elements of your life which are completely personal through a simple google check. It can be very easy in online groups to forget that outside of this community element there is room for strangers to listen in and absorb information, often without your knowledge. There’s generally no malice to it – various groups I’m in online have thousands of people in them, but the ones where I post information about my family might have about 100. It’s not unusual that some members are a lot more active than others. Life is busy, busier for some than others. It can be easy to forget that it isn’t just the same 10 or 11 people who normally converse in the group listening in – this information is available to all members, and in some groups, there isn’t a vetting process to ensure the validity of such members.

Many groups I’m in have criteria for members to ensure the safety and privacy of the information that the members may share. Generally the community-based ones ask for proof that you are indeed who you say you are, a data protection of sorts. This allows admins of the groups to ensure that their members have the privacy and community that they intended when they set up the group. As groups get bigger, it can be harder to moderate. Information, and misinformation, can be disseminated to the members of the group and if not carefully vetted, can have unintended consequences.

As anyone who has ever googled a headache and self-diagnosed with a brain tumour can tell you, the internet is full of answers for a variety of questions that may not be correct. My experience of parenting has been filled with many late night google searches “is this normal? Is it meant to be that colour?” and cries to my online parent friends who have been there, done that, bought the matching t-shirt. Various forums I’ve been a member of have had policies in place where general advice was allowed but medical advice forbidden as a safeguard. Generally the policy has been to stick with guidelines given by the HSE, the body responsible for disseminating healthcare guidelines in Ireland. This is information given by medical professionals with experience in the field, backed up by fact and not anecdotal evidence.

This is not a piece putting down anecdotal evidence. I’m a fan of community shared information and other mothers and fathers sharing the wealth of their experience with others new to the situation. What I’m not a fan of is seeing information which can, despite how well meaning it may be, cause harm to a new baby, a mother, a father. Accepting medical advice from strangers on the internet can be harmless, but on the other hand it can lead to dangerous suggestions. Sleep deprivation has caused me to consider some unorthodox methods in the past of trying to get my son to sleep or to stop his awful coughing – but in hindsight after a few hours of sleep, I came to realise that some of them were pointless and others potentially dangerous. New parents are vulnerable – there’s a whole world out there of information and trying to find the right solution can be like trying to find a piece of hay in a haystack. Thankfully now the GP scheme for under 6’s is in place, so the cost of bringing a small child to the doctor to get proper medical advice is greatly reduced, but at 10pm or 3am, the internet can often feel like the easier option.

Online groups which offer support to parents are a wonderful resource. They offer solace and community to the sleep deprived newbies, and allow others to share the knowledge they have gleamed from their journeys through breastfeeding, potty training, starting school and beyond. They however should not be used in place of medical advice – and this is where the importance of moderation comes in. This is a double edged sword. Moderation not only protects the questioning parent with the information that they are given, but also protects them from the potential backlash of any comment they make.

We see it all too often, the Mommy wars, parents being ripped to shreds for innocent questions or stating what they do with their kids. In the last few days, blogger Grace Mongey was all over news feeds for comments she received from others on Snapchat criticising her for not dumping her breastmilk after drinking – despite her obeying the current HSE guidelines for breastmilk and alcohol consumption. Causing her to doubt herself, she went on to dump the milk on this anecdotal advice instead, and was left feeling rather upset by the incident. Unfortunately the resulting furore has resulted in the wrong people being blamed for this feeling of upset – another online group, providing support but enforcing the rules of their community – and not those who were providing the incorrect advice. While this is just a small indication of how the power of opinion over evidence can become negative, it is important to realise that it is often vulnerable people in receipt of this information, so care does need to be taken in how it is given and how accurate it is.

I’ve had a medley of information given to me from a number of sources over the last two and a half years. From old wives tales to the “well, it didn’t do mine any harm”, there have been suggestions of alcohol being given to a small baby (more than once), to early feeding schedules, to different methods to speed up getting my son to walk, sleep and live independently. While I’m aware that different strokes work for different folks, and what I deem to not be a fit for my family may work for someone else, I do believe that these decisions are best made as informed decisions. Knowing information about potential harms of the cry-it-out method, or from weaning too early have added to my education as a parent and influenced the way I have brought my son up. Sometimes these online forums can lack the basis of evidence based answers – and those who seek to inform in a non judgemental way can be shut down, often in harsh tones which can leave them feeling shot down for their efforts to help.

The reality is, most parents are just trying to do their best at the worlds toughest job. It’s shite hours, no pay, and a whole lot of overtime but we do it because we love our kids and want what is best for them. There is no need to spend valuable time cutting others down for making their best efforts, but in the same vein, offers of helpful advice from medically-qualified spaces should not immediately be considered an attack. We spend a lot of time talking about keeping our kids safe on the internet but little to nothing is said about keeping ourselves safe – not just our financial and data details, but also our own mental and physical health. All we can do is try to help others while not leading them down a path which may cause more harm. If in doubt, always ask the trained medical professional who knows your child – they will be a lot more ready to give an informed opinion than any stranger on the internet.

This is just my opinion and I am sure that others will disagree with it, as is their right.It isn’t an attack on any other person, just some observations I’ve had during my time as a parent who has spent a lot of time online speaking to others about parenting. All I want is that other parents are safe and able to make informed decisions about bringing up their children, and that the treasure that is an online community of parents would not create a situation where that was compromised. The rest is up to you.

I’d love to hear any opinions you have on the topic – this was a bit of a rambly mind-splurge post, but it got out some things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Let me know in the comments, or by email at hello@badmammy.com, what you think and get the conversation going.

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  1. Very well said. Ten years in here with kids and I really know the value of good moderation and I’ve benefited from very well curated sources of information from other Mums I’ve grown to admire and respect for their well researched opinions. I’ve had my eyes opened on many occasions and would like to think I’ve a few bits to pass on myself from all the trial and error. However, I am very careful about giving advice on anything beyond the basics online for a few reasons, how it is received would be one (breastfeeding minefield), the fact that each scenario is different and you need to consider what you are offering could it be harmful if you’d misread the situation and should you just suggest a GP. Ultimately you also need to ask is this helpful? Have I really listened or is my answer more about me? Often times it is more about the person responding, what they did that the convinced themselves was the right thing. This is also a mind mash and I have to go baby crying but those are my thoughts.

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