Social Media and New Mothers

Social media comparisons can lead to anxiety and depression in new mothers

You haven’t showered in a few days, and you haven’t brushed your teeth yet this morning. But, your baby is one month old today!

So you picked out the perfect outfit and made sure the lighting was just right for the perfect photo. You posted the best one on Facebook this morning, and you keep checking to see if anyone has “liked” the picture.

Then scrolling through the “likes” and comments, you notice your mother-in-law, who is always online, hasn’t responded to the picture of her darling grandbaby yet. Why not? What gives? Perhaps she didn’t see it yet. Or maybe she doesn’t like the baby’s outfit. Maybe she thinks you’re not a good mother.

What about that friend from high school? You always “like” and comment on the photos of her kids. Why hasn’t she acknowledged your baby’s photo? Perhaps you aren’t such a good mother after all.

To some, this scenario might sound ridiculous, but it is a real and frequent consequence of social networking, based on my latest study, the New Parents Project.

Why would a busy and exhausted new mother use valuable time to craft the perfect baby photo for Facebook? Moreover, why should she care so much about how these “friends” – some of whom are family and close friends, but many of whom are mere acquaintances – respond to photos of her baby?

To connect. Being a new mother can be lonely and overwhelming.

When I joined Facebook in 2008, my daughter was past the baby stage, but I noticed immediately it was littered with photos and posts about babies and young children. I was by no means the only person to recognize this phenomenon. Parent overshare on Facebook prompted the launch of the “STFU, parents” humor site in 2009.

I joined right in, anxiously awaiting the stream of likes and comments of the perfect images of my daughter that would give me the boost I needed as I struggled to manage parenting a toddler while working full-time.

I didn’t always feel boosted.

The project study looked at new parents’ use of Facebook. It followed 182 dual-earner couples who were expecting their first child across the year surrounding their transition to parenthood.

When their babies were nine months old, we surveyed these mothers about their use of Facebook and other social networking sites in the early months of parenthood.

One of the first things we discovered: mothers who were more concerned with others validating their identities as mothers and those who believed that others expect them to be perfect parents were more active on Facebook. They reported stronger emotional reactions when posted photos of their child received more or fewer likes and comments than anticipated.

We then tested whether Facebook use was associated with elevated depressive symptoms in the first months of parenthood. Indeed, we found that mothers who were more prone to seek external validation for their mothering and were perfectionistic about parenting experienced increases in depressive symptoms indirectly through higher levels of Facebook activity. Moreover, greater Facebook activity was also linked to elevated parenting stress for new mothers.

How might greater Facebook use lead new mothers to feel stressed and blue?

A related study may provide an answer. Based on survey data from 721 mothers, Sarah Coyne from Brigham Young University and her colleagues reported that mothers who more frequently compared themselves to others on social networking sites felt more depressed, more overloaded in the parental role, and less competent as parents.

It may not merely be time spent on social networking sites, but rather how mothers spend their time on these sites and whether mothers compare themselves to others that may ultimately affect their adjustment to parenthood and well-being.

Should mothers give up Facebook and other social networking sites?

Not necessarily. But they should carefully consider their motivations for using Facebook and their reactions to Facebook activity. If you find you are obsessing over “likes” on your photos, consider turning off notifications on Facebook and logging on only at certain times of the day.

If time spent on Facebook leaves you feeling blue, you may benefit from taking a break from it and instead focus on making phone calls to long-distance friends and meeting local ones face-to-face for coffee.

Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan is a professor of human science and psychology, and a faculty association of the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy, at Ohio State University. Her column was distributed by The Conversation, a news agency for academic research.

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