Becoming a mother is a significant life change that leaves many women feeling unsure of their own abilities and seeking answers to questions on topics such as nursing, over-the-counter medication, and sleep training. Even the most innocuous new-mom questions can be met with condescension and resentment. Are you not exclusively breastfeeding? You will ruin your baby if you let him cry himself to sleep!
New research from Pepperdine University confirms with science what many of us have already experienced—or suspected—that the more time women spend on mom-focused social-media sites, the higher their stress levels. There will be more.
“The culture of intensive motherhood says you need all the experts,” says Lauren Amaro, an associate professor of communication at Pepperdine who, along with fellow professors, conducted recent research on the topic. options, and it’s overwhelming.”
These professors say moms are better off limiting their time on social media and reaching out to real-life friends, relatives and pediatricians for advice.
Dr. Amaro started this project after her experiences in private Facebook mom groups. In one, “What type of eczema treatment works best?” Simple questions like these yielded conflicting information and judgmental comments. Some moms, she said, shamed others for suggesting steroid creams or coconut oil. Someone asked her if she had vaccinated her child, saying that one of the shots had caused his eczema.
“I paralyzed it and had to move out of place,” Dr. Amro says.
She and her colleague Theresa de los Santos, another associate professor of communication at Pepperdine, had previously studied the way women in maternity groups compared to each other. Earlier this year the pair enlisted Pepperdine clinical psychologist Nataria Joseph to help them study the physical effects of these online forums on women’s well-being.
The team interviewed 125 mothers recruited for the first time via social media, examining those who reported conditions affecting stress, including pregnancy, certain mental-health diagnoses and substance abuse. Final participants included 47 predominantly white, college-educated women who reported a range of social-media use. (The researchers acknowledge that the small and homogeneous sample size is a limitation of the study, as the findings may not apply equally to all demographic groups.)
Researchers collected saliva samples from the women over four days to test levels of the hormone cortisol, which is released into our bodies when we experience stress and other negative emotions. Too much cortisol can cause high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and weight gain. The more time women spent on mom-focused social media, the higher their cortisol levels. Their findings were published in September in Biological Psychology.
Kate Anderson, chief of staff for maternity-lifestyle brand Motherly, left some Facebook groups and other mom forums hot on the heat. When one of her three children was a toddler and wouldn’t stay in her room at night, she consulted mom groups, only to find different ideas.
Ms. Anderson, who was not part of the Pepperdine study, says she found the discussion about breastfeeding particularly anxiety-inducing.
“My overall approach to these groups is: If they’re serving you—great, but if you leave them feeling stressed, they’re not the best places to be,” she says.
Not all social comparisons have the same effect on motherhood forums. Previous studies by researchers on online mom groups found that women sometimes benefit from comparing themselves to others.
“If a mother sees that another mother is doing better as a mother, she may be inspired by that mother and learn from that mother,” says associate professor Dr. Joseph, who helped conduct the latest study. unhealthy direction when a mother feels inadequate and her identity as a mother is threatened.”
The researchers’ latest findings suggest that it’s best to focus on these forums, not less than an hour a day. For most people, Dr. de los Santos says, “even if you’re getting some of the good from the sites, the bad outweighs it.”
Her previous research shows why women seek out these forums: Many participants said they lived far from their mothers and close friends, and were drawn to the breadth of answers they received online. The lack of support for new moms was particularly acute during the pandemic, leading to the popularity of online communities.
Maya Crowderuf, a New York mom who runs a charity for children with special needs in Ukraine, says she had no family when she had her baby five years ago. She also couldn’t afford a nanny and was struggling to care for a newborn while working. She was feeling lonely and stressed by reading posts from other people with a strong support system.
Ms. Crowderuf, who was not involved in the Pepperdine study, tried and eventually quit five online mom groups she felt were toxic. She recalls a Facebook group about eco-friendly baby products, where she found strong and judgmental opinions on everything from organic bedding to baby food. “I can’t control everything my child is exposed to,” she says.
Online motherhood groups can be helpful if you use them intentionally. Here are some tips how.
know thyself. Dr. Amro says you should assess how you might react to certain posts. “If you’re prone to comparisons and anxiety and stress, you need to be very careful about how you use these sites, and how often,” she says.
Proceed with purpose. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I just going out there to get recommendations and advice?’ If so, just stick to that and don’t scroll through the entire page where you can host disturbances,” Dr. Amaro advises.
set limits. Dr. de los Santos suggests setting a time limit for the sites. And don’t log in before bed, she says—you don’t want to go to sleep angry or anxious.
Build a personalized village. If you’re expecting, try to build a network of local mom friends — even through online forums — so social-media groups aren’t your only recourse. If you already have a baby, try mommy-and-me classes.