Week 11: Identify the storytellers

Low-key pregnancy announcement. |  Diana Discovering Callisto's Pregnancy , Cornelius Cort.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Low-key pregnancy announcement. | Diana Discovering Callisto's Pregnancy, Cornelius Cort. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Over the past three weeks, we’ve looked at the major types of pregnancy and parenting stories you’re going to see in your social media feed: stories that scare, shame, and salve

Well actually, you’re not going to see those stories, because you totally did the homework from Week 7 and scrubbed your social media feeds and email newsletters.

Wait, you didn’t prune your facebook account down to your nearest and dearest 300 friends?

I get it. You couldn’t quit hatebooking on your high school frenimies, hoping for occasional evidence of karmic retribution. But you probably noticed that those “friends” of yours are sharing some pretty dire news reports--kids nearly abducted from IKEA, kids choking on Gerber puffs, parents getting arrested for letting their kids play outside. These stories are bad for you, so you need to cut them off at the source: your social media feeds.

If you weren’t serious about scrubbing your social media in Week 7, after the stories you saw in Weeks 8-10 you should be. Switch tabs to your open facebook account and delete at least 100 friends before coming back here. Then download one of the many apps designed to limit your phone use, like Space or, well, the other Space. Better yet, delete all social media off your phone altogether. You can still have it on your computer for that upcoming pregnancy announcement. 

Even if you are super-diligent at avoiding viral parenting news on social media, you’re still going to hear a lot of stories that scare, shame, and salve. I’ve already given you strategies to work through each of those types of stories, but one additional strategy will help you think through any new story you come across.

Stories are told by people, a fact that in our current media landscape is used to charge media outlets with producing fake news. I'll stay out of that debate here, and limit my argument to parent-land, where few storytellers are actually peddling fake news. In most cases, parenting stories are told with the best of intentions. The storytellers are not nefarious, but they do have different worldviews and motivations that color their work.

So, who is telling most of these parenting stories? And what are the benefits and drawbacks to reading their stories? 

Who: Parents who have "been there"

How they help

From New York Times bestselling authors, to newbie bloggers, to the women in a facebook moms group, experienced parents are often a trusted resource. They are often sharing their hard-won wisdom out of genuine concern for other parents.

Stories from the trenches can make us feel better when we're feeling down about being parents. Fellow parents often offer tips and tricks to help get exhausted new parents through another day.

How they harm

Our self-worth sometimes stems from believing that we have managed to get parenting “right,” which can lead us to endorse products or approaches with only the flimsiest anecdotal evidence. Parents often write stories that salve, like the story of the amber teething necklace that solved all of baby’s teething woes or the trick that finally got a cranky toddler to sleep.

Anecdotes can make us feel less alone in our concerns for our kids, and that’s great. But once we start to change our behavior, eliminating activities we once enjoyed or buying expensive gear, we should acknowledge that one anecdote is insufficient evidence for these changes.

Who: Celebrity parents

How they help

Celebrity parents can bring attention, money, and other resources to important causes. Chrissy Teigen posts beautiful images taking a stand for public breastfeeding. Kristen Bell has the best t-shirt and parenting mantra ever. Neil Patrick Harris' crafty family pics render Pinterest obsolete. 

How they harm

Star power often makes us forget that celebrity parents should be viewed just like any other parents who have been there. And when celebrities use their platform to advance fraudulent research, we get measles outbreaks in Minnesota

That means you should be wary of taking any anecdotal evidence provided by a celebrity parent as irrefutable fact meant to apply directly to your own child.

Who: Big name parenting websites

How they help

If you google any question with the word "kid" or "baby" in it, you'll likely land on one of these sites. Many of the articles won’t have a specific author named, because the site pays writers to write in the voice of the publication as a whole.

These websites are enormous, and as a result cover virtually any question you might have about parenting. 

How they harm

The information on the sites is not "bad," per se, but it is important to consider the financial incentives these websites have for sharing a story. Parenting blogs of all sizes make money through advertisers, and those advertisers tend to pay per click. Stories that garner more clicks earn more advertising money.

Because so much of an audience’s click rate is based on titles alone, parenting blogs work to outdo each other with titles that promise “one trick” or “five easy rules.” But their stock in trade are those stories that terrify us, that make us hold our babies tight. Because those negative titles tend to stick with us, we develop an inflated sense of risk.

If you notice a parenting website filled with inflammatory or fear-mongering titles, vote with your clicks by clicking elsewhere.

Who: Academic researchers

How they help

These are the people writing the articles that you saw blurbed and possibly misinterpreted in that WebMD article you bookmarked for your upcoming OB visit. Most hold PhDs. Many hold MDs. Some hold both.

Scientific and medical research benefits parents in ways big and small. Sometimes, a single article can reverse an entire field's way of thinking about a childhood medical issue. That's the case with the recent LEAP trial, which found that introducing peanuts to kids sooner rather than later helps reduce the rate of peanut allergy.

How they harm

Some scientific journal articles cause direct harm (the classic example is Andrew Wakefield's fraudulent paper linking vaccines to autism). But in the parenting realm, the much more frequent harm comes from reporting about scientific findings. 

In general, the motivation behind much scientific research is much different from the motivation of those reporting on scientific research. When you read about a new scientific breakthrough in the news, it’s usually accompanied by some directive about your own behavior. But that’s not necessarily the intention of the person who wrote the article.

That was the case with the toe tourniquet article we looked at in Week 8. The researchers’ goal was to describe a phenomenon they were seeing in their practice and advise other doctors how to deal with it. They were not making any advice about what parents should or should not do with their infants, but news outlets who picked up the story did draw that conclusion.

Being a storyteller isn't a "bad" thing: all of us make sense of the world through stories. The lesson here is that there is often a relationship between the story and its teller. That's true for all of us, not just the people who are producing deliberately misleading stories. Better understanding the storyteller's motivations can help us make better sense of the parenting advice we take from those stories.