Surprising news for those whose Facebook friends have clogged with their feed with pictures of smiling babies: There may be a darker side to those sunny Instagram posts of play dates and afternoon bake sessions.
An Ohio State University study has found that new mothers who post the most on social media are more likely to be perfectionists seeking validation, or depressed. Researchers looked at a group of Midwestern moms with above-average education in full-time jobs. Those who posted most frequently on Facebook tended to identify report feeling social pressure be "perfect" mothers—and were more likely to be depressed in the months following their pregnancy.
Disturbingly, heavy Facebook use exacerbated symptoms of anxiety. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, the lead author of the study, told ScienceDaily: "If a mother is posting on Facebook to get affirmation that she's doing a good job and doesn't get all the 'likes' and positive comments she expects, that could be a problem. She may end up feeling worse." Participants reported paying close attention to the comments they got under their baby pictures, which were integral for their self-validation as good mothers.
It makes sense that social media might encourage women to feel inadequate about their own parenting, but what's interesting is that these new mothers overcompensated by posting more pictures of their children than the mothers who didn't report depressive symptoms. With post-partum depression affecting around 15 percent of new mothers, there's a fairly high likelihood that one of the women posting interminable baby pictures on your newsfeed may be struggling with feelings of inadequacy or anxiety.
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To find out more, we spoke to Donna Moore, an expert in maternal Internet use at City University in London, and Catherine Jones from Pandas, the postnatal depression charity. In Moore's view, "the Internet is a double-edged sword for new mothers. There are dangers when it comes to overuse of social media and relying too heavily on validating your maternal identity through your interactions online."
However, the Internet can also be a positive space for new moms. "There's so much stigma around having a mental illness already, but being a mother with a mental illness can be doubly hard. Post-natal problems really affect a woman's identity as a mother, so a lot of my research has shown that social media use can help women negotiate a positive identity online as new mothers."
Moore highlights forums for mothers dealing with pre-natal and post-natal depression as a valuable resource for new mothers. "They can anonymously disclose how they're feeling, without fear of the stigma of being a bad mother. One of the themes that run through the academic literature strongly is that women fear their babies will be taken away from them if they tell people they're struggling. So forums can be places where women can get validation and feel like they can talk about things they might not be able to talk about offline. That can be helpful for a lot of women."
However, for the 90 per cent of 'lurkers' (regular social media users who rarely post) there may be more damaging consequences. "If you're feeling pretty down on yourself and go on Facebook and see all these lovely smiley happy families, that could make you feel pretty bad."
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Catherine Jones of Pandas says that social media affected her own personal experience of post-natal depression. "It was difficult in the past for me to look at other mothers. They're baking; they've gone to the zoo; they're in the park having a picnic. Meanwhile you're in the depths of depression and you're not actually doing anything. It's hard enough to just get dressed. So social media can definitely put pressures on mothers to perform in a certain way."
I ask if she's surprised that mothers who post most often might actually be the ones struggling to cope. "I'm not surprised, actually. You mask what's going on internally, so you post more things online to cover it up." Her advice for women experiencing feelings of depression? "Talk to someone. Go to your doctor if you have concerns about your mental health, or reach out to charities, local support groups (some of which are on Facebook), or online resources."
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Turning away from social media entirely isn't the solution—we just need to be more honest with ourselves about the reality of our social media use. "If I have a bad day now, it can be hard to go online. But you have to remember that you're not going to put up a picture of you with no makeup on crying, having an awful day. You're only going to put up the highlights.
You have to remind yourself and other mothers that Facebook is more of a show reel of good things, as opposed to the whole truth."