child health: 1,600,000,000
Identifying the typical internet parent, cybermommy if you will, has been one of the most common empirical endeavors. Not groundbreaking but again, baby steps. New parents and parents-to-be appear especially hungry for information on the web and cybermommy is a 30- to 35 year old first-time mom. Older parents or parents with older children first turn to books or professionals then the internet. Cybermommy heads online for both information and social support.
For information she goes straight to a search engine for answers about child development and specific health conditions or illnesses. She might also head to her favorite parenting website or less often to one her friends recommended. A small 2004 study out of Atlanta found women who work out of the home were more likely to go online for answers about specific parenting issues. Stay-at-home mothers, in contrast, wanted to confirm their beliefs or get reassurance their kids were normal or that they were doing the right thing. Confirm their beliefs.......oh yeah red flag for those of us concerned with the accuracy of information online (hold that thought).
Cybermommy's favorite haunts? She prefers the big need I say commercial websites like BabyCenter.com and WebMd.com. Yes, despite the very official name and all, the latter sells stuff, has ads, tries to make a profit, etc. One study reported parents weren't very troubled by any potential conflicts between the commercial aspects and informational aspects of these sites. Mothers felt comfortable enough with the information presented on these sites and enjoyed the convenience of learning, shopping and socializing in one spot. Although moms praised the quality of content on the geekier hang-outs, the university- or government-based websites, most found the content too dry or as one mom put it too much "journal level detail" and not enough "mom level detail." Sadly the experts agree their sites aren't so hot. A 2008 review concluded the content on better children's health websites though "accurate" was also largely "incomplete, unclear, or difficult to access."
And so now we turn to the elephant in the (play) room....the quality of parenting information. In your spare time (as if) Google fact-checking and children just for yucks. Or simply consider the recent disaster over vaccines and autism fueled by the spread of misinformation online. Take comfort, perhaps, in the fact some researchers have paid attention to accuracy. The first comprehensive study on parenting and the internet gathered up a bunch of these studies but found much of the accuracy-focused projects were conducted before 2005. Even the data-obsessed have appeared to have moved on, perhaps overwhelmed by the mass of (mis)information.
Most of the accuracy research has targeted specific topics such as illnesses or health practices and the news is not good. For instance, studies examining breastfeeding found online information lacking in both depth of detail and accuracy. Only 7 of 30 websites evaluated for breastfeeding content in a 2006 study passed all the quality criteria set by the American Academy of Pediatrics. British researchers came to a similarly dismal conclusion assessing quality of miscarriage information. A large meta-analytic study of the accuracy of health information on the internet that encompassed 5,941 websites concluded 70% of the investigations found evidence of inferior quality. The accuracy studies have found problems ranging from plain incorrect or dated content and lack of cited empirical evidence to missing information about who wrote the posted content let alone why (i.e. motivations, biases, professional associations).
There's no reason to believe pages devoted to children's health or parenting would not be similarly compromised. In fact, throw in articles on discipline, education or birth order (i.e. from the social sciences) and references to empirical evidence get rarer still and not because research doesn't exist. It's often a challenge to track down the studies behind medical advice (online or otherwise) but even more so for issues rooted in the fields of psychology, sociology, education and economics if only because there's less of an effort made to provide sources. I'm not sure why this is the case because it's relatively simple for writers to throw in a quick reference or two. Of course it's another more difficult job figuring out if it is relevant and quality research (issues beyond the scope of this post). Even if a study appears to be solid there is some evidence suggesting more than half of research findings might be wrong anyhow. Do parents question the credibility of online experts and the accuracy of online information? Most voice some skepticism. Atlanta researchers Bernhardt and Felter found parents start with uncovering the motives of the person or organization behind the websites but that information is not always transparent. So parents also rely on the domain name for a quick clue with .org and .edu sites perceived as more authentic and trustworthy. Physicians and nurses garner more respect than non-professionals. For less health-related topics (e.g., potty training, sleep) people find other parents trustworthy. Psychologists, educational specialists, take note. I suspect it's much easier to get away with spreading misinformation or flawed evidence when it comes to topics off the more medical spectrum, if only because parents trust other parents as much if not more than actual professionals. Could someone please test this?
Now I hate to dump more stress, guilt and responsibility on moms, especially those new to motherhood but the media is not going to leave parents alone. Yes, the media should do a better job at conveying nuanced, accurate information in context. Journalists, editors, news organizations, university press offices, researchers, they could all make some changes but there's no turning back on the excessive safety alerts and recommendations. The anxieties and advice will fluctuate but not the volume so parents should be informed and ready. Along with a birth plan and layette, mothers-to-be should prepare their own media kit to cope with the impending storm. Honing a better sense of how to judge the accuracy of claims about kids is not as simple as picking out a stroller but it's well worth the ability to cut through the fluff and fear-mongering. I can't promise new mothers peace of mind but I guarantee the next study or risk will pop up faster than the ultra-light five-point harnessed, all-terrain eco stroller folded up at her feet.
Remember, you can find the carnival on Facebook too. Comment or add a link to other evidence-based posts on the topic, this month, new motherhood or fatherhood. Okay T., put the boob away, read this and get some sleep...xoxo.