Having recently returned to the “parenting a newborn” stage, I’ve been surprised at how readily I’ve also returned to the “late-night Googling” stage. At times, this has resulted in breakthroughs—see, for example, a desperate Reddit spiral that led me to a shockingly effective burping technique called “wonky winding.”

Other times, all that Googling has resulted in confusion, panic, or guilt (are people really finding time to do “infant massages”?2 Really?).

What better time, then, to revisit one of my favorite topics: how parenting has changed with the dawn of the Internet and social media.

Editors note: A previous version of this post was published earlier this year for paying subscribers only. I’ve updated it and removed the paywall so that all subscribers can now enjoy a renewed discussion of my parents’ college antics, my favorite purple crocs, and, of course, data on parenting in the digital age.

Going back to the source

We all like to think we know our own parents well, that we have a pretty firm grasp on who they are, how they parented us, the kinds of things they would or wouldn’t do.

Then, every once in a while, they surprise us. We learn, for example, that our dad and his college roommates once set all their furniture on fire to heat their apartment.3 Or that our mom was really into racquetball.

My parents were, and are, excellent parents. They were loving but firm, selfless, incredibly organized. They’d go above and beyond. Each holiday season, for example, they’d orchestrate a herculean assemblage of traditions—cookies, advent calendars, perfectly formed ash footsteps left by Santa, beautifully wrapped gifts. Now that I have my own children and find myself panic-buying stockings for rush delivery by Christmas, I see how impressive this really was. Having raised six kids into generally well-adjusted adults,4 I consider my parents to be a model for what parenting should be.

So upon becoming a parent myself, I’ve been surprised to learn how often they were just…winging it.

How tightly should I wrap this swaddle? I’ll ask anxiously, holding up an overpriced, velcro-enhanced contraption, panicked about risking suffocation with a too-loose swaddle or hip injuries with one wrapped too tightly.

Oh, hm, I don’t know, my mom will answer patiently, I think we’d just kind of…wrap a blanket around you guys?

When do you think I need to wean him off the pacifier? What did you guys do? I’ll say, my head swirling with a mix of warnings about oral health and over-attachment from friends, our pediatrician, and the Internet.

Oh, I don’t know, I think we just kind of guessed when you guys were ready, they’ll answer.

Guessed?! Just kind of wrapped a blanket?! 

Who are these people?

Enter: the Internet

One thing my parents didn’t have available to them when raising me? The Internet. Now, taking to the Internet for parenting information has become a near universal experience—according to one 2020 survey, 93% of parents have looked online for information about health issues related to their child, and 68% have taken to social media to read or talk about child health and development.

We never had access to all that information, my parents will say, as my husband and I marvel at how one could ever raise a child without Googling “red raised bump rash on legs milk allergy?” at all hours of the night.5

But is all that information a good thing?

The research suggests parents are…not so sure.

Information overload

In a 2020 U.S. nationally representative survey, 66% of parents said parenting today is harder than it was 20 years ago. The most commonly cited reasons? “Technology” and “social media.” Much of this is likely due to our kids’ use of technology, but our own use plays a role, too.

In contrast, only 7% of parents said parenting today is easier than it was 20 years ago. But for those parents, the most commonly cited reasons were “tech access and advancements” and “more information on parenting.”

Having the world at our (keyboard-tapping, magic marker-covered) parenting fingertips is, seemingly, a mixed bag.

A 2022 systematic review of 42 studies investigating parents’ use of social media for health information highlights both pros (e.g., normalizing challenges, getting support, quick answers) and cons (e.g., inaccurate information, judgment, anxiety-provoking stories of “worst case scenarios”).

At a moment’s notice, our most embarrassing or esoteric parenting questions can be transferred seamlessly from our brains to our Google search bars, Facebook parenting groups, or (increasingly) ChatGPT. Our social media feeds are filled with tips, scripts, and strategies for every imaginable situation. We’re warned about the dangers of everything from Cocomelon to plastic containers, plus a laundry list of other items we’d never before thought to be concerned about.

It’s hard to overstate the value of this information, of getting fast answers to our questions, of knowing we’re not alone in our parenting experiences.

And yet. With information comes opinions, and judgment, and conflicting advice, and the feeling that perhaps you were wrong all along, that you never did know what you were doing in this whole parenting thing, that everyone else is an expert, and how is it that you are the only one who had no idea baby walkers would cause irreparable harm to your child (see also: infant bath seats, phthalates, saying “good job”)?6

A friend who is pregnant for the first time recently texted me: I’m learning there is such a thing as TOO much data.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Unlike for previous generations, when I have a parenting question, I have multiple sources at the ready. I’ll spend some time Googling, and maybe consult an online academic journal or two. I’ll take a look at social media, text some parent friends, and call our pediatrician. I might even try ChatGPT.

But often, I’ll return to a familiar source: my own parents. They’ll have practical advice, ideas, and years of experience to draw upon, but they’ll also have something else—a reminder that, no matter how much information we have at our disposal, maybe we’re all just winging it sometimes.

And that’s okay.

If you’ve seen or spoken to me at any time in the last month, I have most certainly told you about “wonky winding” with far too much enthusiasm. My apologies. If you haven’t seen or spoken to me, sure! I’d love to explain it! Thanks for asking! Apparently, the anatomy of the stomach and esophagus is such that putting your baby on a diagonal, so it leans to its left side (over your right shoulder) results in more effective burping. These are the things I get excited about these days.

I have not done a deep dive on the research on infant massage, but the AAP suggests it can have a“calming, organizing effect” on a baby’s nervous system and may promote sleep! I do not know how people find time to actually do this with their babies, but I do highly recommend searching YouTube for “infant massage” for an instant mood boost.

When the previous version of this post was published with that whole “dad throwing furniture in the fireplace” reference, I mentioned I was still unsure of the story—something about a forgotten heating bill, a very cold winter, and some excess wooden furniture in their college apartment? My dad has since clarified that, yes, there was burning of furniture for warmth, but that—and he wanted to emphasize this—it was his roommates, not him, who did it. If you’re one of my dad’s college roommates and you happen to be reading this, please reach out with more information.

I say my siblings and I have grown into “generally well-adjusted adults” because, I mean, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My brother’s Christmas present to every member of the family last year, for example, was a pair of violet purple crocs. At the time, we laughed at the absurdity. Now, at least 50% of us are wearing said crocs on a daily basis. My toddler and I often go out—in public—in our matching pairs. Anyway, we’re all doing fine! Totally fine. November 2023 Update: I’m still wearing the crocs. No plans to stop anytime soon.

But really: what did you do when you had a parenting question and couldn’t Google “how many Cheddar Bunnies is too many for toddler?” or “toddler ate Play-Doh – dangerous?”

Where did this idea that saying “good job” is harmful come from?! Google, of course, has informed me that the phrase could “manipulate” kids into completing a task, or might turn kids into “praise junkies.” I am aware of no research to support this. Also, Praise Junkies would have been a great name for 90s punk band.

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About the Author: Jacqueline Nesi
Jacqueline Nesi, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and the author of the popular newsletter Techno Sapiens.

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