Parenting in the Internet Age – Help or Hindrance?

By Eleanor Ayres

Modern parents live in a very different world from the one they were born into.  Aside from the advice of healthcare professionals, parents in the seventies or eighties might have had a couple of parenting advice books, or maybe the odd magazine, but by and large, they relied on the traditional support network of friends and family for help and advice, as had their parents and grandparents before them.

Fast-forward to today, and parents have instant access to immeasurable volumes of advice and information online. At the same time as more information is available to parents, traditional support networks are fragmenting. People move away from their home towns more frequently, for various reasons, so are often away from friends and family when they start their own family. But with the rise of smart phones and the concept of being connected at all times, friends, family and complete strangers are available to chat 24/7 through online forums, social media or video and text messaging.

Just as back in the day advice came with a hefty dollop of personal bias and old wives’ tales, much of the same can be found online. Googling your child’s medical symptoms can result in anything from a diagnosis of near-death to unusual home-made remedies to reams of advice making you feel like a terrible parent, leaving you feeling scared and uncertain. Tables of baby milestones have you ticking off what your little darling is and isn’t capable of and worrying that they can’t run backwards and do advanced calculus aged 9 months.

Nonetheless, in amongst the dross parents have ready access to everything they could need to know and then some, whether the guidance you’re looking for is medical, developmental or practical. As long as you do the research, and don’t get taken in by every new suggestion, more information can only be a good thing, potentially easing pressure on medical services and certainly going some way to compensate for the lack of the same sort of physical support network as in previous generations.

With the demise of that physical support network, social networks rise to plug the gap – with Facebook and other social media, group chat and online forums all creating a modern support network.  Again, this is great – we can reconnect with old friends who are going through the same stage of life, and chat with other parents who share their experiences and knowledge.

At the same time, the pressure on parents to present a “perfect” life online is increasing, with Pinterest-worthy nursery décor, chef-style children’s meals, milestone videos and myriad photos of smiling, angelic children filling Facebook and Instagram feeds. This can lead to already stressed and tired parents feeling inadequate and somewhat lacking, piling on the anxiety and worry.  We have to remember that social media is an individual’s chosen public face – just because their life looks perfect doesn’t mean they don’t have to deal with temper tantrums, sleepless nights or food smeared on walls.  They just choose not to share it, and however hard it might be to remember that reality, it might be the only way to avoid driving yourself mad by trying to keep up with your friends’ idealised lives.

Conversely, there is a growing trend of parent blogs documenting parenting “warts and all”.  On reading these you are initially reassured – “it’s not just me”.  Then worry that even the children featured in these “crap-parent” blogs seem to have a more exciting and interesting lives – even just because it’s full of funny mishaps.  Again, these blogs frequently describe just one facet of a parent’s life.  All kids have awful moments, funny moments, angelic moments and boring moments, and any blog has to have an angle to make it interesting.

Underlying the social media, the medical information, the shopping (ordering nappies/diapers in the middle of the night for next day delivery has got to be one of the greatest gifts to a confused new parent), is the world of the parenting forum.  In the UK forums like Mumsnet have created a whole new political constituency, such is their influence.  As with offline society, you can find people from all walks of life, some more militant than others – stray into the cross-fire of the more “live” topics, such as breastfeeding, co-sleeping or discipline, and you can experience attacks from all sides – yet these forums are today’s support networks, filling in for, or at least supplementing, the traditional family network.

Fundamentally, the Internet is an amazing resource, and an invaluable comfort for parents who want to share their ups and downs with friends, family or even complete strangers.  But we must always bear in mind that – legitimate factual pages aside – people pick and chose what they show of themselves online, and it isn’t always the whole truth.  We are lucky to have the Internet – and hopefully you can take the best of it without undermining life offline.

Some of the best user-friendly factual websites include:

For funny / interesting blogs and discussion, try:

Taken from the April issue of Geek Parenting, out now!

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