Is social media fuelling anxiety and depression in new mums?

Could Facebook and social media be contributing to new mums feeling isolated? [Photo: via Pexels]
Could Facebook and social media be contributing to new mums feeling isolated?
[Photo: via Pexels]

Facebook and other social media sites could worsen the feelings of isolation experienced by new mums, an expert has warned.

Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, professor of Human Sciences and Psychology at Ohio State University, has been studying the social networking behaviour of new mums and dads in her latest parenting study, the New Parents Project.

The study, which she discusses in The Conversation, looked at how often new parents used social networking sites, why some used them more than others and what the impact might be on new parents mental health.

It followed 182 couples expecting their first child throughout pregnancy and their transition into parenthood.

When their babies were nine months old, both mothers and fathers were surveyed about their use of Facebook and other social networking sites in the early months after their children were born. But the team quickly discovered that it was mothers who were spending more time on social media posting snapshots of their baby.

The research revealed that new mums, particularly those who reported feeling pressure to be a ‘perfect’ parent, were much more active on Facebook. Those mothers reported stronger emotional reactions when the pictures they’d posted of their babies received more or fewer likes and comments than they expected.

The study team then tested whether Facebook use was associated with more elevated depressive symptoms during the first few months of new motherhood and found that those mums who were more keen to seek validation of their parenting skills experienced increases in depressive symptoms indirectly through higher levels of Facebook activity.

What’s more, greater Facebook activity was also linked to a spike in parenting stress for new mums.

Mums who seek to validate their parenting on social media are showing increased symptoms of depression [Photo: Unsplash via Pexels]
Mums who seek to validate their parenting on social media are showing increased symptoms of depression [Photo: Unsplash via Pexels]

So why is social media contributing to the feelings of anxiety and depression new mums might experience in early parenthood?

Professor Schoppe-Sullivan points to a related survey by Brigham Young University, which found that mums who compared themselves to others on social media more frequently felt more depressed, more overloaded in the parental role and less competent as parents.

And if you think about the pressures new mums often place on themselves – the pressure to be the ‘perfect’ parent, the pressure to have the ‘perfect’ birth, the pressure to have the ‘perfect’ post-baby body – it follows that mums who are spending time comparing themselves to others may ultimately see their wellbeing negatively affected.

But before you go on a total social networking detox, other studies have revealed that social media can have some emotional benefits for new mums too, particularly in terms of strengthening and maintaining relationships, and helping new mums feel connected.

Indeed Professor Schoppe-Sullivan’s own research revealed that mums who have a greater proportion of Facebook friends who are family members or relatives experience greater parenting satisfaction.

She suggests new mums consider their motivations for using social media and their reactions to 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,” she writes in The Conversation.

“Or, if time spent on Facebook leaves you feeling blue, you may benefit from taking a ‘break’ from Facebook for weeks or months and instead focus on making phone calls to long-distance friends and meeting local ones face-to-face for coffee,” she continues.

And parents can help too by choosing to share the struggles of parenting as well as the triumphs.

“They can also support instead of criticise mothers who portray themselves in a less-than-perfect – but more authentic – light,” she concludes.

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