How social media is fuelling anxiety and depression among parents, according to Priory expert

Does linking up with other mothers and fathers on Facebook and Instagram make us happier? The answer it would seem is not. A survey by the Priory Group[1], the mental healthcare specialists, found that as many as half of parents think that social media sites like Instagram and Facebook create unrealistic and unattainable expectations of family life which fuel anxiety and can trigger depression.

More than one in five parents – 22% – said that happy family pictures posted on Instagram, or exuberant baby blog posts on Facebook and other sites, made them feel “inadequate” – while a similar number, 23%, said it made them feel “depressed”.

And they didn’t think they were alone.

Nearly 40% said they thought idealised images of parenthood – and “over-sharenting” – were fuelling anxiety among new parents, while more than a third (36%) said they thought that baby bloggers and “Instamums” were contributing to rising rates of depression

Instead of creating a friendly “online community”, more than one in 10 of those asked said that rather than feeling more connected to other mothers, such sites could make new parents feel more isolated.

While the desire to share the joy of a newborn baby is nothing new, social media platforms have taken proud parenting to a new level, with “baby boasting”, “parenting wins” and “mummy-goals” becoming as much part of the daily routine as breastfeeding and nappy-changes.

From the positive pregnancy test, to the gender reveal, the baby shower and even labour, every aspect of a child’s early days is now shared online. Previously, these important announcements would have been shared with a close family network, but they are now broadcast to followers and “friends” across the globe.

There are, of course, clear benefits to “being social” – particularly for mothers without a close network to hand. Social media can be reassuring for new parents who turn to their online community for advice on anything from health, relationships, “best buys” and general parenting techniques.

However, for others, endlessly “perfect” posts can have the reverse effect, generating feelings of not measuring up, even though they know that continuous boasting, and glossing over the less positive moments in life, is disingenuous and fake.

Dr Lucinda Green, Priory Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist at Priory’s Harley Street Wellbeing Centre, and expert in the mental health of women during pregnancy and up to one year after birth, says;

These findings are very concerning, but sadly not surprising. Around 1 in 5 women have mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first year after birth. Depression and anxiety are common, but women can experience a wide range of mental health problems at this important time in their lives. There are many factors which contribute and these unrealistic representations of motherhood on social media definitely do not help.

“Women who criticise themselves, or assume others will judge them, for failing to be the perfect mother they aspire to be, are at increased risk of postnatal depression. When social media projects idealised images of parenthood as the norm, it’s easy for new parents to feel guilty or inadequate if their experience does not match this.”

Dr Green adds; “Previous surveys, such as Maternal Mental Health – Women’s Voices (Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) have identified the pressure to enjoy motherhood as a reason for women feeling isolated and guilty for not being happy and finding parenting hard. Women highlighted the importance of having a realistic picture of motherhood and an acceptance that it is experienced differently by different women. Being a new parent can be tough. Most new parents find it overwhelming, exhausting and stressful at times.”

The Duchess of Cambridge (and mental health ambassador) has also spoken about the pressures of motherhood, saying: “Some of this fear is about the pressure to be a perfect parent; pretending we’re all coping perfectly and loving every minute of it. It’s right to talk about motherhood as a wonderful thing, but we also need to talk about its stresses and strains.”

Dr Green says; “Over half of women with mental health problems in pregnancy or after birth are not identified. Even fewer have the evidence-based treatments they need. Women’s sense of shame, embarrassment and failure at being perceived as not coping as a mother is a significant reason for their reluctance to disclose symptoms of depression or anxiety. Pictures of apparently ‘perfect parents’ on social media can reinforce this. However, it’s crucial that women have treatment for mental health problems in pregnancy or after birth – the impact of untreated illness is longstanding for women, partners and children.

Here, Dr Green outlines her guidance to help parents take a breather from social media and help with mental health:

  • Have the courage to unfollow or unfriend: Hitting the unfollow button on a “friend’s” Instagram or Facebook account can be a huge relief. Unfollowing celebrity mums or “insta-mums” will protect you from constantly comparing yourself to them.
  • Remember that your mental health is as important as your physical health in pregnancy and after birth. Make a plan as early as possible to ensure you have support for your emotional wellbeing. One good way to do this is to use the Tommy’s charity “Pregnancy & Post-Birth Wellbeing Plan” which you can download from www.tommys.org.
  • If you’ve had mental health problems previously, or if you have current symptoms, talk to your midwife, GP or health visitor. They will know about help and support in your area. Getting help early means you have a chance to prevent illness, or at least to have treatment before problems become too serious.
  • Look after yourself: eat healthily, exercise and avoid alcohol. It can be hard to find time for yourself as a parent but take any opportunity to relax or have a break.
  • Let others help – accept offers of help from family and friends to cook or look after children for you.
  • Talk to someone you trust. This may be your partner, a relative or friend, or it could be your GP, midwife or health visitor. It really can help to open up about how you feel. It’s good to talk to someone you know and not just rely on online communities.

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