While you’d be forgiven for thinking that social media can have a positive influence for parents – allowing them to connect with other mothers and fathers via Facebook and Instagram, a survey from Priory Group, the mental healthcare specialists with a Wellbeing Centre in Dubai – found that as many as half of the parents polled think that social media channels create unrealistic and unattainable expectations of family life, fuelling anxiety and triggering depression.
There are, of course, clear benefits to ‘being social’ – particularly for mothers without a close family network to hand, as is so often the case in the UAE. 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.
But on the other hand, these social channels can have a deeper, damaging impact. More than one in five parents said that happy family pictures posted on Instagram, or exuberant baby blog posts on Facebook and other sites, made them feel ‘inadequate’ and ‘depressed’. Importantly, respondents to the survey 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 said they thought that baby bloggers and Instamums were contributing to rising rates of depression.
It follows then that rather than making them feel more connected, many of those asked believe that parents - especially new ones - could end up feeling even more isolated thanks to what they see on social media. While the desire to share the joy of a new-born baby is nothing new, these social 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.
These endlessly perfect posts can have an unintended effect, generating feelings of not measuring up, even in light of the fact that parents seeing these posts know that the continuous boasting, and glossing over the less positive moments in life, is disingenuous and untrue to reality.
Dr Rasha Bassim, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Dubai’s Wellbeing Centre, says that “whilst extremely worrying, these latest findings come as no surprise. In today’s society, the social media influence on many new parents starts from the moment they carry out a positive pregnancy test. From finding out the gender of their baby and planning a baby shower, to creating an ‘idealistic’ birth plan, social media is awash with posts depicting and normalising unrealistic expectations of motherhood.”
She explains that new mothers are particularly susceptible to the negative impact of these expectations of their mental health. “Around 1 in 5 women have mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first year after birth. Depression and anxiety in particular are extremely common and can cause significant suffering if left untreated. While the ‘baby-blues’ tend to last for just a couple of weeks, post-natal depression is far more intense and debilitating. So considering the major life changes pregnancy and motherhood entails, not forgetting the accompanying rollercoaster of emotions, social media presents a real danger of compounding and exacerbating what can already be an extremely anxious, stressful and exhausting time.”
She suggests balance, explaining that “of course, social media can have its place, but I would advise all new mums to enter the social media bubble with caution.”
Staying on top of your mental health
In the UK, the pressures of motherhood are increasingly being recognised thanks to the high profile support from people such as Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. In her capacity as a mental health ambassador, she said: “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 Bassim adds: “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. So it’s vital new mums are open and honest about their feelings and concerns and seek professional help when necessary.
“It’s important to remember how interaction between a mother and her new baby will help to form emotional bonds and shape the way he or she will think, feel and behave in later life. So, I would urge any new mums who are suffering in silence to realise they are not alone or unusual in feeling overwhelmed by motherhood and all it entails. Left untreated, anxiety and depression can have severe repercussions, not just for mums, but for the whole family.”
Read more: Why mums need to be more selfish
Your mental health checklist:
So what should you do if you start to feel overwhelmed by the often unrealistic world of social media? Here are Dr Bassim’s top tips on how to take a breather from Instagram and Facebook and keep your mental health in ship shape:
• Be brave and unfollow or unfriend. The simple step of hitting the unfollow button on a ‘friend’s’ Instagram or Facebook account can really help to release any pressure and instill a sense of calm. Likewise, unfollowing celebrity mums or ‘Instamums’ will instantly remove comparisons with their unique and often unattainable lifestyles.
• If you want to spend time online, use apps and websites that will help you as a parent. Out of the Blues is an online support group and forum for mums suffering with post-natal depression, based in Dubai, which is a great place to start if you’re looking to connect with mums also going through a tough time. Check out some other great resources here:
• Remain guilt-free and always ensure you get some ‘me’ time. Having ‘me’ time is a necessity to surviving day-to-day life as a mum. Just 15-20 mins every day to decompress and unwind can have significant emotional benefits and help engender positive feelings.
• New mums be prepared. It’s important pregnant women and new mums treat their mental health with as much care as they do their physical health. If you’ve had mental health problems previously, or if you have current symptoms, talk to your GP as soon as possible. They will know what help and support there is in your area. Getting help early on means you have a chance to prevent illness, or at least to have treatment early before problems become too serious.
• Get enough sleep. Quality sleep can be a real problem when you have a newborn to attend to, but not getting enough can seriously exacerbate mental ill health. When the baby naps, forget about the washing-up, dirty nappies etc. – they can all wait. Grab a 10-15 power nap at the same time. You will feel so much better for it.
• Accept offers of help. Don’t struggle in silence and be afraid of relying on others. Ask for help from family and friends, whether it’s to cook dinner or look after the children while you go for a lie-down – most will only be too happy to help.
• Chat it out. It’s easy to feel isolated when you’re home with a baby all day, so make sure you stay engaged with the people in your life, preferably face-to-face and not online. Talking about your day, your feelings, or even your favourite TV show with a partner or friend can have a positive effect on your emotional wellbeing.
• Ride the emotional roller coaster. Emotional ups and downs are normal. But a ride that only goes down is broken. Get help if you’re not bonding, if you start to have negative thoughts about the baby or yourself, or if you experience severe mood swings for more than a couple of weeks.
Want to cut down on your social media usage? Try our digital detox challenge to start you off.
The Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai provides fast access to mental health treatment, with a wide array of experts to offer comprehensive treatment options. It provides psychological support throughout fertility issues, pregnancy, birth and bonding, including for those experiencing antenatal or postnatal depression as well as treating for anxiety, stress, general depression, and eating disorders.