Parenting Instagram accounts can make mothers feel supported, but also less competent

By Emily Reynolds

Adjusting to parenting can be difficult for many new parents — particularly when it comes to judging their own competence or knowing whether or not they are doing the “right” thing. Subsequently, many new parents seek advice: from peers, family members, friends, and, increasingly, from social media.

A new study, published in Acta Psychologica, explores the impact of parenting-related Instagram accounts on mothers. It finds a mixed experience: while mothers can feel supported by a community of fellow parents, they can also feel less competent when comparing themselves to others.

Ida Egmose from the University of Copenhagen and colleagues recruited 270 mothers of one or more children. After completing demographic measures, the mothers were asked how much time, on average, they had spent on Instagram every day during the last week. Next, they indicated what sort of accounts they followed: “InstaParents” — that is, influencers who post about their experiences with parenting; professional accounts that share information about child development or parenting; or a university-run account about child development. If they did follow such accounts, they were asked how much they felt their posts negatively affected their feelings about their parental competence, and how much they felt supported by them. They also gave examples of how they felt negatively affected or supported. Finally, mothers indicated how much they compared themselves to parents they followed on Instagram.

The results showed that mothers frequently followed accounts that discussed parenting: 84.8% followed InstaParents and 90% followed the professional profiles. They spent, on average, nearly an hour a day on the platform.

On average, 84.2% felt supported by the different kinds of profiles, and they felt most supported by the professional accounts. Yet there were also those who felt that following the profiles negatively affected them: 40.7% felt this way about the InstaParents accounts and 37.1% about the professional profiles. Those who felt a higher degree of social comparison were more likely to be negatively affected by each kind of profile, but also felt more supported by InstaParents profiles.

In response to the open-ended questions, some wrote that they felt the accounts decreased their sense of competence, and made them worried that they were “not doing a good enough job if [they didn’t] follow all the advice” they saw. Others worried more about child development, while some pointed out that parents on Instagram can “make it all look a little too perfect”. Positive themes included the sharing of parenting tips, increased knowledge about child development, reassurance, and a sense of wider community.

Overall, then, mothers seemed to have a mixed experience on Instagram. Though there was certainly a level of support, negative feelings, such as concerns about not being a good enough parent, also emerged, particularly among those prone to social comparison. Instagram thus offers a potential space for learning and knowledge dissemination — but can be a double-edged sword.

The study only looked at mothers — looking at fathers and the impact social media has on their feelings around parenting could also be interesting. The participants were also primarily white: images of mainly white parenting influencers may have a different impact on parents of colour, which is also worth exploring.

How are mothers negatively affected and supported by following parenting-related Instagram profiles? A mixed-methods study

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest