NEWS

Social Media Parent Groups: Helpful or Harmful?

Parent looks at phone and computer while infant is lying on bed

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Key Takeaways

  • A study out of Seaver College at Pepperdine University links using social media parenting groups with higher cortisol levels, an indicator of increased stress.
  • According to Edison Research, 93% of moms surveyed use some kind of social media in 2022, especially Facebook.
  • Parenting social media groups can be a great source of information, but if used improperly, can actually make parenting more stressful.

Parenting young children can be stressful, especially for new parents. I know when I had my first child, the overwhelming amount of information boggled my mind. I turned to parent groups for answers, especially on Facebook. Often I found myself more stressed out as a result. All the conflicting information, and the occasional vitriol with which people answered my questions, all made me want to just close the page.

Researchers out of Seaver College at Pepperdine University studied the interaction between stress and social media mom groups. The researchers focused on evidence of cortisol in moms' saliva after interacting with social media parenting groups. The results were staggering. The more time moms spent on these sites, the higher their cortisol levels were, suggesting an increase in stress.

The Stressful Side of Social Media Parent Groups

This study, led by researchers Lauren Amaro, Nataria T. Joseph, and Theresa de los Santos, surveyed 47 mothers who used social media parenting groups to find information. They conducted their study over a period of four days, testing the cortisol found in the moms' saliva three times a day.

Surprisingly, the group found that cortisol levels were lower when these mothers felt they could "judge" other parents for how they raised their children. These "naturalistic" social comparisons are associated with lower stress because they made mothers feel better about their own parenting. However, long-term use of these groups led to higher cortisol levels in the mothers' saliva, suggesting higher stress levels. Further, higher cortisol levels were linked to having emotional interactions online.

Lauren Amaro, MA, PhD, an associate professor of communication and one of the lead authors of the study, explained that her own experiences with online parenting groups were the catalyst for this research. When her own child developed eczema, Dr. Amaro sought help from parenting groups—but discovered she felt even more alone when reading negative comments about different ways moms had approached eczema.

The sheer amount of conflicting viewpoints can create confusion for parents—especially when the algorithm rewards hot takes over factual information. "Social media groups often highlight the 'loudest' comments rather than the most accurate," says Scott Roth, PsyD, the founder and clinical director of Applied Psychological Services of New Jersey. "Louder voices can make one believe that a certain viewpoint has more credibility."

These groups can be full of toxic judgments about parenting styles, and Dr. Amaro and her colleagues wanted to dig in to see how this affects the body. "No one has studied [the biological link between stress and parenting groups] before," Dr. Amaro says.

Nataria T. Joseph, a mom friend of Dr. Amaro's and a colleague at Seaver College who focuses on the biological link between psychology and mental health, suggested testing cortisol, and the study was born. Cortisol can be an indicator of stress and at worst of mortality.

How Social Media Groups Can Be Helpful for New Parents

Social media groups for new parents aren't all bad. They can be incredible places to source information, and to find in-person interaction, especially in the current COVID-19 and RSV landscape.

I know when I was in the trenches of sleep training my children (especially the one who hated to nap with every fiber of her being), I couldn't rely on social media groups. There were too many opinions and judgments being passed. But when I was seeking a group of friends to meet offline, I was able to find those who also wanted authentic connection, and my first parent group was born.

"Social media groups are a mixed bag," Dr. Amaro says. "They offer positive benefits." Especially, Dr. Amaro explains, for questions parents want to ask that they don't necessarily need a pediatrician for.

The issue often comes when these groups become polarized by trends or opinionated voices. "The greatest benefit of mom groups is informational. It's when that information is in your feed all the time that it can be difficult," Dr. Amaro explains. "The algorithm shows the most controversial material, and uncertainty leads to comparison."

This hive mind can be damaging, but if you know how to step away, these groups can be helpful. "Effectively moderated groups could help provide the content moderation and tone moderation that can make groups feel safer for the users," Dr. Roth explains.

This advice comes with an important caveat. "Consumers should still consult their doctor, therapist, teacher, etc. when making decisions regarding their children," adds Dr. Roth.

Is A Social Media Parent Group Right For Me?

Parenting groups can be a wonderful source of information for new parents—it's just knowing how to navigate them safely.

Dr. Amaro explains that in-person groups create a kind of relational context and social accountability and diplomacy that online groups don't. When we're online, we aren't reading nonverbal cues that allow for reciprocal questions to be asked and opinions to be shared. Indeed, there is a lack of "affection" associated with lowering cortisol, and that information overload can introduce worries and conflicts we as parents don't even think to have before we go online.

Especially with so much of our life online, Dr. Amaro suggests checking in with yourself when using social media and creating common-sense boundaries.

"Be a part of [these groups] but unfollow them so they're not just in your feed 24/7," Dr. Amaro says. "Use them if they're going to be an avenue to in-person communication." The key is using online groups as a temporary measure, she explains.

Dr. Roth agrees. "Parents should always check in with themselves to determine whether these groups continue to feel good and useful to them." Parents should not feel shy about leaving these groups if they are no longer serving them, or limiting their consumption.

What This Means For You

With the pandemic pushing so much of parenting online instead of meeting in person, it can be hard to set boundaries for social media groups. Knowing your stress level and learning to set healthy expectations for the kind and amount of social media consumption can be helpful. Finding in-person parenting groups, and taking part in self-care while checking in with your own opinions about parenting, can help mitigate online stress and lead to better mental health.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Joseph NT, Santos T de los, Amaro L. Naturalistic social cognitive and emotional reactions to technology-mediated social exposures and cortisol in daily lifeBiological Psychology. 2022;173:108402. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2022.108402.

  2. Edison Research. Moms and Media 2022.

  3. Vogelzangs N, Beekman ATF, Milaneschi Y, Bandinelli S, Ferrucci L, Penninx BWJH. Urinary cortisol and six-year risk of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2010;95(11):4959-4964. doi:10.1210/jc.2010-0192.

  4. Weisman O, Schneiderman I, Zagoory-Sharon O, Feldman R. Early stage romantic love is associated with reduced daily cortisol productionAdaptive Human Behavior and Physiology. 2015;1(1):41-53. doi:10.1007/s40750-014-0007-z.

By Taylor Grothe
Taylor is a freelance writer, fiction author, and a nonbinary parent to two little children, ages five and three. Their fiction work can be found in Bag of Bones Press and Coffin Bell Journal, and their first novel is on submission to major publishing houses.