Home / Technology / News /  The research is in: Facebook mom groups really do stress women out

Social-media mom groups can be a lifeline for first-time mothers, but they can turn ugly fast.

Becoming a mother is a significant life transition that leaves many women feeling uncertain about their abilities and seeking answers to questions on topics such as nursing, over-the-counter medication and sleep training. Even the most innocuous new-mom queries can be met with condescension and outrage. What, you don’t exclusively breast-feed? You’ll ruin your baby if you let him cry himself to sleep!

New research from Pepperdine University confirms with science what many of us have already experienced or suspected—that the longer women spend on mom-focused social-media sites, the higher their stress levels.

“The culture of intensive motherhood says you need all the experts," says Lauren Amaro, an associate professor of communication at Pepperdine who conducted recent research on the topic with fellow professors. “Moms going into online spaces have thousands of voices weighing in on their choices, and it’s overwhelming."

Mothers are better off limiting their time on social media and contacting real-life friends, relatives and pediatricians for advice, these professors say.

Stress Testing

Dr. Amaro started this project following her own experiences in private Facebook mom groups. In one, questions as simple as “What kind of eczema treatment works best?" yielded conflicting information and judgmental comments. Some moms, she says, shamed others for suggesting steroid creams or coconut oil. Someone asked her if she had vaccinated her baby, implying that a shot had caused his eczema.

“I found it paralyzing and had to move out of that space," Dr. Amaro says.

She and her colleague Theresa de los Santos, another associate professor of communication at Pepperdine, had previously studied the way women compare each other in motherhood groups. Earlier this year the pair enlisted Pepperdine clinical psychologist Nataria Joseph to help them study the physical effects of these online forums on women’s well-being.

The team interviewed 125 first-time mothers recruited through social media, screening out those who reported conditions that could affect stress, including pregnancy, certain mental-health diagnoses and substance abuse. The final participants included 47 predominantly white, college-educated women who reported a range of social-media use. (The researchers acknowledge that the small and homogeneous sample size is a limitation of the study, as the findings might not apply equally across all demographic groups.)

The researchers collected saliva samples from the women over four days to test levels of the hormone cortisol, which our bodies release when we experience stress and other negative emotions. Too much cortisol can lead to high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar and weight gain. The more time the women spent on mom-centric social media, the higher their cortisol levels were. Their findings were published in September in Biological Psychology.

Dabble, don’t dwell

Kate Anderson, chief of staff at motherhood-lifestyle brand Motherly, left some Facebook groups and other mom forums when things got heated. When one of her three kids was a toddler and wouldn’t stay in his room at night, she turned to mom groups for advice only to find vastly differing views.

Ms. Anderson, who wasn’t part of the Pepperdine study, says she found discussions around breast-feeding to be particularly anxiety-inducing.

“My overall approach to these groups is: If they’re serving you—great, but if you leave them feeling stressed, they’re not the best place to be," she says.

Not all social comparisons on motherhood forums have the same effect. The researchers’ previous studies on online mom groups found that women sometimes benefit from comparing themselves with others.

“If a mom feels that another mom is performing better as a mother, she could be inspired by that mom and learn from that mom," says Dr. Joseph, the associate professor who helped conduct the latest study. “It can go in an unhealthy direction when a mom feels inadequate and that her identity as a mother is threatened."

The researchers’ latest findings suggest that it’s best to dabble, not dwell, in these forums—keeping it to less than an hour a day. For most people, says Dr. de los Santos, “even if you’re getting some good from the sites, the bad overtakes it."

Their previous research suggests the reason women seek these forums: Many participants said they lived far away from their own mothers and close friends, and were drawn to the breadth of answers they could find online. The lack of support for new moms was especially acute during the pandemic, adding to the popularity of online communities.

Maya Crauderueff—a New York mother who runs a charity for special-needs children in Ukraine—says she didn’t have family nearby when she had a baby about five years ago. She also couldn’t afford a nanny and was struggling with caring for a newborn while working. Reading posts from others who had a strong support system left her feeling lonely and stressed.

Ms. Crauderueff, who wasn’t involved in the Pepperdine study, tried and eventually left five online mom groups that she felt were toxic. She recalls a Facebook group about eco-friendly baby products where she found strong and judgmental opinions on everything from organic bedding to baby food. “I can’t control everything my child is going to be exposed to," she says.

How to set boundaries

Online motherhood groups can be helpful if you use them intentionally. Here are some tips on how.

Know thyself. Dr. Amaro says you should assess how you might react to certain posts. “If you are prone to comparison and anxiety and stress, then you need to be very careful about how you use these sites, and how frequently," she says.

Proceed with purpose. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I just going there to get recommendations and advice?’ If so, just stick to that and don’t scroll through the whole page where you could run into a host of messiness," Dr. Amaro advises.

Set limits. Dr. de los Santos suggests establishing a time limit for the sites. And don’t log in before bed, she says—you don’t want to go to sleep angry or anxious.

Create an in-person village. If you’re expecting, try to form a network of local mom friends—even via online forums—so social-media groups aren’t your only support. If you already have a baby, try mommy-and-me classes.


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