Dr Kate Davis explores the impact of social media
THE RESEARCHER, THE PLATFORMS AND THE PARTICIPANTS
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. While mums with children aged 15 and over will never have had access to these social media platforms while their kids were babies, today’s mothers are overwhelmed with a world of information at their fingertips. Most people think nothing of this. So what? Everyone is on Facebook.
Dr Kate Davis is not like most people. She’s made it her mission to find out how social media influences new mums in this brave new age of information technology.
Dr Davis is an information researcher and a senior research fellow at USQ, with an interesting focus. She completed her PH.D in 2015, focussing on how new mums engage with information on social media, and what impact it has on their experience of motherhood.
“I guess it came from me noticing my friends’ usage of social media changing as they had kids, and going from posting about being hung over to having been up all night with a screaming baby,” Dr Davis says.
Her PH.D was exploratory, but she found that social media can be a really positive experience for new mums.
“I had one participant who has two children and she credited social media with saving her from post-natal depression with her second child. She didn’t feel as isolated as she did at first, because she could be alone in the middle
“There are women out there making the conscious decision to try and help other mothers by being really real about mothering.” DR KATE DAVIS
One of the things I am really interested in, is immunisation and how information and misinformation flows on social media.” DR KATE DAVIS
of the night, breastfeeding, and could connect with people.”
While researching her PH.D, Dr Davis found mums were using social media to normalise their experience of motherhood.
“They ask ‘what is this really like’ and ‘what is normal behaviour for a child’,” she says.
She added that a lot of her participants talked about how they had had unrealistic expectations of motherhood, based on the way mainstream media paints mothers, and based on the books they’d read before having babies.
“One participant described it as stepping of the plane in a foreign country for the first time and getting a real sense of culture shock, but with a baby, you can’t just get back on the plane.”
Dr Davis explained that social media gave those participants a way to see some of the ‘nitty gritty’ and less positive aspects of motherhood, and to understand that other people were struggling too.
Dr Davis is now expanding on her PH.D research into new mums’ experience of social media, focussing specifically on health.
The issue of immunisation is very topical at the moment, with some mums choosing not to vaccinate their children and facing the blow-back from that decision. Dr Davis is interested in the human experience of this issue, particularly what information mums are exposed to on social media and the impact that has on them and their decision-making.
With the words ‘fake news’ and ‘click bait’ becoming more prominent, I asked Dr Davis whether she believed mums are exposed to too much misinformation.
“There’s a lot of misinformation on social media, but a lot of good information too. Mums benefit not just from the information, but also from the social interactions that happen around it.”
But, she added, there is a lot of work to be done around media literacy and making sure people have the critical skills to consider the information they are engaged with.
According to Dr Davis, there are real opportunities for public health providers and health agencies to connect with mums in online spaces, but social media has to be authentic.
“From my perspective, it’s really important to understand how mums are experiencing social media, so health care providers can come up with the best possible strategies to connect with them,” she says.
She believes further exploration is necessary to see how people will feel about connecting with health providers through social media.
“I think there would be lots of people who would be open to connecting with organisations, but there are other strategies for getting content into people’s feeds without directly interacting with them.”
With the topic of online privacy popping up regularly over the last couple of months, I asked Dr Davis whether this was a concern among her participants. She said, for some mums, privacy is a real issue.
“Mums are sharing so much about their very private personal experience of mothering and some are very conscious of the fact they’re sharing about another person who’s one day going to grow up and have their own sense of self.”
We talked about the prevalence of negativity on social media. She mentioned that she follows a lot of ‘mum-influencer’ types out of personal interest and has often seen them talking about the negativity they experience. Sometimes, mums are attacked for sharing anything from their baby’s feeding schedule to small accidents and injuries.
“One of my participants had an experience where she wrote a blog post and she was torn apart in the comments.”
A lot of topics on motherhood are severely divisive and political – immunisation, attachment parenting, controlled crying, the list goes on – and negative reactions are swift and oft times, brutal. These kinds of reactions online, can lead to mums engaging less and missing out on opportunities to learn from others, or to help others.
“It’s sad that it’s a deterrent. There are women out there making the conscious decision to try and help other mothers by being really real about mothering,” Dr Davis says.
Dr Davis said she noticed different vibes on different social media platforms. According to her research, people who have blogs and connect on Twitter, tend to have a more positive experience, while mums primarily on Facebook often feel they get unsolicited advice whenever they say something.
These mums, said Dr Davis, were less inclined to engage again on the same platform.
When all is said and done, Dr Davis still believes the benefits to mums significantly outweigh the down sides of social media. Social media is a powerful tool to assist new mums, by helping them realise they’re not alone in their insecurities, ignorance and unreadiness, and by sharing resolutions to their questions, offering support for their struggles, and relief from their isolation.