Momma Data

Debunking the latest studies about children's health and well-being

Caution: Parenting Experts Ahead

What parents should know before the latest news and advice hits the media.

Parents face an avalanche of advice in the form of news, official recommendations, tips and scientific discoveries. It comes at them from books, magazines, television, the internet, classes and elsewhere.This collective mass of supposed wisdomThe Parenting Media as I like to call it, includes journalists, doctors, psychologists, government officials, mommy bloggers and anybody else with a public platform trying to tell parents how to raise their kids or more likely, how they can really screw them up.The briefings cover everything from postpartum depression, temper tantrums, obesity, bullying, ADHD, autism and early puberty to the more mundane like swaddling, coaxing picky eaters and remembering to have sex (the parents, not the kids). Before worrying about toxic sunscreen or buying the happy baby book, however, parents might want to remember a few observations I've gleaned from the parenting media.   

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There's an epidemic of experts and information.

It doesn't take a Ph.D. to realize the sheer amount of news and advice has skyrocketed with more experts, knowledge, diseases and disorders popping up every year.Today is a far cry from when Dr. Benjamin Spock ruled the rather desolate 1950s parenting landscape. His Baby and Childcare remained the second best-selling non-fiction book for 52 years outsold only by the bible. Amazon's parenting and relationship section boasts 126,816 selections right now and it pales in comparison to the other offerings on the internet. I haven't been able to find a good estimate of the number of parenting websites but if Google search results are any indication, parents have more webpages than they could dare read between speech therapy, soccer and hiding vegetables in dinner. Check out the number of search results.

parenting health: 16,800,000

child health: 1,600,000,000

ear infection: 14,900,000

vaccines: 23,500,000

breastfeeding: 26,700,000

I don't know about autism and obesity, but we are witnessing an epidemic in the explosive growth of experts and information devoted to children's health and well-being. 

The parenting media as we know it is still a youngster.

Parents and children survived for millennia without this vast universe of alleged expertise. Kids survived without professional guidance for much of human history. The expert industry is a relatively new phenomenon. As for the first published parenting authorities, we'd hardly recognize them as such today. Typically men of the cloth, they didn't care a whit about germs or fine motor development. No, these clergy men and less often their wives presided over the moral character of children. The most popular parenting book of the nineteenth century, The Moral Instruction of Children, held forth on piety, obedience, duties, honor and other lessons sure to unsettle more than a few current parents. The birth of the modern parenting industry, dominated by child care experts, came in the 1920s with the publication of manuals by professionals in the fields of medicine and psychology. Even as late as the 1960s parenting experts were rarer than a breastfed baby. In the past fifteen years or so the internet has lowered the bar for entry into the parenting media, providing heretofore unimaginable opportunities for not only experts but wanna-be experts to enter the rug rat race as it were.  

The parenting media talks about just about everything but itself. 

Despite the great range of topics and available venues for pestering parents, the media lens rarely turns to the relentless parade of experts and quasi-experts flush with warnings and lessons. The parenting media is not an introspective bunch. The celebrity pediatrician, the kiddie columnist and others working in the parenting sphere don't often bother scrutinizing the proliferation of information. Parents would be hard pressed to find any kind of meaningful conversation much less serious review of the profusion of tips, risks and studies.  

I'm not the only person surprised the subject never comes up. Some academics are surprised about this oversight too, especially the lack of interest in websites targeting parents. Although focused on first-time moms in their aptly titled study Parenting Gone Wired Clare Madge and Henrietta O'Connor note "the paucity of work on new mothers using the internet is unexpected since it is widely acknowledged that the use of the internet as a source of health information is increasing."  For that matter, there's a paucity of research on parents using the internet period, new mothers, fathers, parents with teens, adoptive parents, bilingual parents, whoever. Forget the information seekers, what about inquiries into the information itself? When's the last time you heard anyone in the media muse about the state of the parenting media? Exactly.

 Parenting advice is not perfect.

Now for the elephant in the (play) room....the quality of parenting information in the media. In your spare time google fact-checking and children. Or simply consider the disastrous vaccines-autism debacle and the current measles outbreaks that were fueled in no small part by the spread of misinformation online by mainstream and fringe media. Take comfort, perhaps, in knowing some smart people have paid attention to accuracy. The first comprehensive study on parenting and the internet found a smattering of research focused on the accuracy of child health information but noted most had been conducted before 2005. Even the data-obsessed have appeared to have moved on, perhaps overwhelmed by the mass of (mis)information.

Most accuracy research has targeted specific topics such as illnesses or health practices. 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 health website accuracy concluded 70% of the investigations found evidence of inferior quality. The accuracy problems included incorrect or dated content, lack of cited empirical evidence and lack of 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 on these topics. 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.

Parents appreciate accurate information…if it isn't too boring or inconvenient.

Most parents voice some skepticism but in the end choose the bigger commercial websites like BabyCenter.com and WebMd.com that, no secret, sometime feature less than stellar information. One study reported mothers sometimes questioned what they read on these sites but stuck with them for the convenience of learning, shopping and socializing in one spot.  Although they 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." Imagine. Add well-documented tendencies for people to seek information confirming their prior beliefs to this media equation and voila, a recipe for another public health mess.  

So what's a parent to do?

The media is not going to leave parents alone. Yes, the media should do a better job at conveying nuanced, accurate information in context. Yes, journalists, editors, news organizations, university press offices and researchers could all make some changes but there's no turning back on the excessive number of "newsworthy" discoveries, alerts and recommendations. The anxieties and advice will fluctuate but not the volume so parents should be informed and ready. My advice? 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 a new mother peace of mind but I guarantee the next study or risk will pop up faster than the ultra-light five-point harnessed, all-terrain compact eco stroller folded up at her feet.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D., is a former research psychologist and founder of Momma Data, a non-profit organization that tracks and fact-checks parenting media. more...

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