It's a sad reality of motherhood that we feel pressure to be perfect moms. And there is no easier way to compare ourselves to other mothers—and seek approval for our parenting choices—than by using social media. Well, now it turns out surfing Facebook actually might be emotionally unhealthy for some new moms. A new study, published in the journal Sex Roles, finds mothers who post the most about their babies on Facebook also tend to be the most depressed.
Researchers at the Ohio State University looked at 127 highly educated, mostly married Ohio moms who had full-time jobs, and they found those who felt the most pressure to be "perfect" moms and who most strongly identified with their motherhood roles were also the most frequent posters on Facebook. These were the same moms who took it the hardest when they received negative comments about a post or photo, and who were most affected by others' reactions to their posts. They're also the moms who reported the most depressive symptoms after nine months of parenthood.
Understanding how these moms used Facebook started in the women's third trimesters of pregnancy, when researchers asked them to rate statements such as, "Only if I am a perfect parent will society consider me a good parent." Nine months after their babies were born, the participants were asked to rate similar statements like, "I know people make judgments about how good of a partner/mother I am based on how well cared for my house and family are."
How often the moms logged onto Facebook was also measured, as well as how often they uploaded pictures of their babies. Additionally, according to Science Daily, the mamas were asked to rate how they felt when their photos received fewer comments or reactions than they'd hoped.
"These mothers paid close attention to the comments they got when they posted pictures of their baby. They felt validated when they got a lot of likes and comments, but they were also more likely to feel bad and disappointed when the reaction wasn't what they had hoped," Jill Yavorsky, co-author of the study and a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State, said in a press release.
Depressive symptoms were self-reported at three and nine months postpartum. Women who reported more depressive symptoms at nine months tended to identify with their roles as moms more strongly and to feel more pressure to be perfect moms; those are the moms who researchers found were posting most frequently to Facebook. It's worth noting reporting depressive symptoms does not mean a person is clinically depressed.
One of the truly fascinating findings of the study was that a whopping 98 percent of new moms reported uploading photos of their babies, and most did so within the first week of the child's birth. Eighty percent of moms featured their babies in their profile photo.
"What these mothers are saying is that my child is central to my identity, at least right now. That's really telling," said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, lead author of the study and professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University.
She notes that the women in the study weren't stay-at-home moms. "They have jobs outside the home that can also provide validation, which makes our results even more interesting. They have other successes to point to for validation," she said, adding, "The easiest way for women in our society to get validation is still through being a mother because other roles that women take on are still not as valued."
Schoppe-Sullivan concludes some new moms are using the social media site in unhealthy ways. She says, "If a mother is posting on Facebook to get affirmation that she's doing a good job and doesn't get all the 'likes' and positive comments she expects, that could be a problem. She may end up feeling worse."
The takeaway: As Yavorsky says, "The message of the study isn't that Facebook is necessarily harmful—but that using Facebook may not be an effective platform for women to seek and gain external validation that they're good moms."
Echoes Schoppe-Sullivan, "It's great to share stories and pictures of your baby, but relying on Facebook to feel good about your parenting may be risky."
My takeaway: Rely on your real friends, not your Facebook friends, for support in your new motherhood role. And if you notice that posting to Facebook is making you feel bad, take a break! Try to gain some perspective. How many "likes" you get on a photo of your child trying peas has nothing to do with how good of a mother you are.
Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.