When Britney Lombard was expecting her first baby in 2010, she remembers being both dazzled and overwhelmed by all the Internet had to offer: There were Facebook groups filled with new parents, websites where she could check which medications were safe for breast-feeding moms, and blogs and email groups that had answers — or at least opinions — for any question she could conjure.
Even then, she says, it felt like a lot. But by the time Lombard, a 36-year-old child-passenger safety technician in Colorado, had her third child two years ago, the spectrum of digital parenting resources had exploded. Beyond social media and forums and Google,
“I used the BabyCenter pregnancy app and the Wonder Weeks app, and I used a breast-feeding tracking app,” she says. “You have to decide whether or not you believe that information will work for you, but it’s good to feel like there’s a support system there.”
But what isn’t entirely clear — at least, not yet — is how all this technology shapes the parenting experience.
Rebecca Parlakian, senior program director for Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on the healthy development of infants, toddlers and families and has studied new parents since 1977, said that apps and websites are common go-tos among millennial parents. These parents also rely on more-traditional sources of guidance, too — such as family members, doctors and friends — but Parlakian says the growing influence of digital resources is striking.
“In our focus groups, parents would say, ‘If we have a question, we just Google it,’ ”
Parlakian said. “But if you Google ‘How do you handle temper tantrums?,’ you’re going to get a billion responses, and some of them are going to be really inappropriate. Some of these parents are utterly overwhelmed by a tidal wave of information.”
That is why Abby Zalis, a 36-year-old lawyer in Baltimore, says her pediatrician urged her to forgo some of the high-tech gadgets she had acquired during her anxiety-ridden pregnancy — the state-of-the-art video monitor, the wearable baby-movement monitor, the tracking apps.
The concern was that these tools often lead worried parents to worry even more, causing them to lose even more sleep, “which can hurt your ability to parent,” Zalis said. “You end up getting worried over little variations that don’t matter in the least.”
The top baby-tracking apps are designed to place all of those little variations in pleasantly color-coded data columns dotted with tiny diaper and bottle icons. This sort of tangible, scrollable accounting of every hourly accomplishment might offer exhausted and overwhelmed parents a sense of validation or security — even if it’s ultimately illusory, said Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan whose research focuses on families’ digital media use.
Those tools can be useful. But when it comes to parenting, “we’re using technology to try to solve things that are really, inherently human,” Radesky said. “I think there’s the risk of turning to data to try to soothe yourself or achieve this sense of control that we really just don’t have. It gives you this kind of false sense that you’re being industrious. You have this immediacy, this control over the data that you’re putting in your app, but it’s not the same thing as meaningfully engaging in the parenting challenge that is before you.”
Lauren Mancini, 36, a high school teacher in Catonsville, Md., and the mom of two young girls, remembers the time she guided an overwhelmed friend through a sea of information about in-home day cares, child-care centers and nannies, and her friend asked: How does everyone else know how to do this, and I don’t?
“I explained that I only knew how because I had done it,” Mancini said. “Technology seems to make people believe there’s no trial and error anymore, that a simple Google search will give you all the answers.”
In a 2012 survey published by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that new mothers who spent the most time on their Facebook pages reported higher levels of parenting stress. Researchers noted that the correlation did not necessarily indicate causation: Perhaps these moms flocked to Facebook for reassurance because they were already anxious.
Whether technology is primarily a cause of or solution to parenting stress remains an open question — but Radesky said she has heard from parents who are similarly stressed by social media feeds filled with alarmist, viral headlines, as well as those sharing idyllic photos of happy families.
“Right now I have trainees who are all parents of very young kids, and they’ve said to me, ‘Ugh, all this stuff on my Facebook feed just makes me feel worse as a parent,’ ” she said.
Edwin Santana, a 29-year-old father of a 3-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter in Fredericksburg, Va., can relate. He and his wife are both Marine veterans, a fact he emphasizes “because in most aspects of our life, we’re extremely tough,” he said.
But for Anna Akins — a 31-year-old early-childhood development advocate and mom of three who lives in rural northeast Louisiana, where offline parenting support is scarce — the connections she has found through her smartphone have been vital.
“I live in a small community where we don’t have many ‘Mommy and Me’-type deals or community things that you can do with your kids,” Akins said.
When her youngest son’s doctors first dismissed her concerns about allergies, Akins found information online that helped her advocate for him. She has formed lasting friendships through Facebook groups for breast-feeding moms. She still gets regular emails from BabyCenter to guide her through her children's’ development, and she uses science-based apps to identify educational activities to try with her kids.
“You have to use your own knowledge and your own experiences when you look online or go to social media,” she said. “As a mom in my small community, with the knowledge I already have, it’s been good for me.”
Radesky sometimes hears from parents who are hoping to find a healthy balance with technology, and she usually tells them first to pay attention to their habits: How much time are they spending with a particular app or website? How does it make them feel?
If a resource is ultimately helpful, then keep it, she says.