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, there were smartphone apps that could log the duration of every breast-feeding session, record her infant’s nap times to the minute and send push notifications reminding her of upcoming developmental milestones.
“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.”
It’s a support system that more smartphone-toting millennials such as Lombard are turning to. Pew Research reports that there are more than 17 million millennial mothers in the United States, and a million more become moms every year. And as rapidly as millennials are having babies, technology is evolving to meet the demands of the most digitally driven generation of parents yet. (This fall, Pampers plans to launch a wearable sensor that effectively links a baby’s diaper to your phone, with near-instantaneous alerts that your baby needs to be changed, truly putting the “pee” in “speed.”)
But what isn’t entirely clear — at least, not yet — is how all this technology shapes the parenting experience: Do apps that record the details of every diaper change produce informed moms and dads, or anxious ones? Do Facebook parenting groups foster competition or community? What happens when a panicked 2 a.m. Google search for “baby + rash + fever” yields 27 million results?
To Lombard, the answer is often a roll of the dice.
“Say you’re wondering if something is normal about breast-feeding, so you Google it, or you go to your app. You find that it is normal, that lots of parents are experiencing this — then that’s reassuring,” Lombard says. “But then let’s say my child has a strange rash and I start looking at that and I start finding all of the horrible things that it could be, all the horror stories, and then it’s the opposite of reassuring. Then it just makes me feel more insecure, and now I can’t sleep.”
Apps and algorithms
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.”
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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.
“Some scholars talk about how we have started to offload our intellectual work or our emotional work onto our technology,” she said. (Instead of trying to remember something ourselves, we’ll Google it. Instead of reading a map, we’ll trust a digital navigation system.)
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.”
Stress and social media
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. “Everyone posts the best parts of parenting, and you rarely see the difficult stuff. It makes you think that what you’re experiencing may be abnormal or different or that you’re doing a bad job as a parent.”
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.
But if it only amplifies worries? “Either uninstall it or try burying it into a folder for a while,” she said. “Do an experiment and see if you feel better.”
And when the digital cacophony feels deafening, remember that there is no substitute for a parent’s gut feeling, she added.
“It’s really good that there’s more readily available information out there for parents, but there’s a tipping point,” she said, “and past that — when it’s a lot of conflicting information, or a lot of information that’s trying to tell you how to do the more nuanced parts of parenting — it’s better for parents to trust their own instincts.”
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