Is there a downside to finding virtual friends with babies of a similar age?

The Internet is fast becoming a great resource for new mums, not just in terms of advice but also in finding new friends with babies of a similar age. But is there a downside? ANDREA MARA finds out.

“The Internet is supposed to make us all feel more connected, but of course very often it does exactly the opposite – it disconnects us.” These cautionary words came from a psychologist who was contributing to a recent Sunday morning radio programme. And of course, it’s not a new idea – there are countless articles and experts warning us about social media, explaining that it can lead to loneliness and isolation. But for new mothers, can it also do the opposite?
Rather than cutting us off from real-life people, can social media fill a void when there are no real-life people around? The internet is full of parenting forums and Facebook groups, and while they have their downsides, for many, they are an invaluable resource. Take the mum who is feeding her baby at 3am and feeling like she’s the only person in the world still up. One click will bring her to groups and forums where she can chat to other mums who are also doing night feeds. You can’t phone a friend at 3am, but online, there’s always someone to talk to.
Or the mum who can’t get out of the house with her small baby – maybe she’s too tired to get dressed or maybe it’s raining or maybe there’s just nowhere to go – maternity leave can be lonely. On those tough days, when there’s nobody else to talk to, she can reach for her smartphone – her window to the rest of the world.

Forum friends

Parenting forums are a very popular way to seek advice or just chat about the everyday ups and downs of life with a small baby.
Many women join “birth clubs” before their babies are born – connecting with mums who are at a similar stage in pregnancy. Accountant Muuka Gwaba found this hugely supportive when she was expecting her daughter four years ago. “My first forum was eumom. ie while pregnant. I joined a birth club, which progressed to a smaller group on the forum,” she says. “It was fantastic – so full of support.”
Teacher Aideen Ní Chéilleachair also found forums helpful. “I liked the anonymity of it,” says mum-of-four Aideen. “I could ask anything, and not worry that people would know me if it was a stupid or embarrassing question!”
But while Muuka and Aideen appreciated the support offered by forums, both of them moved on to joining Facebook groups, enjoying the closer connectivity that less anonymous online interaction brings.
Muuka, who blogs at anotherdropofink.com, is now in a number of Facebook groups. “A lot of them were for parenting advice to begin with, and now I use them for support. It’s nice to know other people who parent in a similar manner, and to be able to see how others may deal with situations from a different perspective. I also find them safe places to vent about the difficulties and frustrations of parenting a very feisty, spirited child.”
Aideen took it a step further, setting up dozens of Facebook groups herself, many of which now have thousands of members around Ireland. She got the idea after seeing another mum speaking on TV about tandem feeding her two sons. “I thought that it was a pity there wasn’t a Facebook group to support everyone feeding older children. Breastfeeding an older child can feel very isolating as you outgrow the real-life support, which tends to be aimed at those feeding smaller babies. So in January 2012, I started a Facebook group to support those feeding that bit longer – I added 12 friends before I went to bed and it had
50 members by morning. It grew exponentially from there,” says Aideen. “The group now has over 7,000 members – many are new moms coming for advice and the expertise of more experienced members as they start out on their breastfeeding journey.”

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Into real life

Facebook groups are often “closed”, meaning only members can post and read. So new mums can ask questions without worrying that they’ll be seen publicly. On the flip side, because the groups exist within Facebook, members are there under their own (Facebook) names, so there’s a sense of connecting with “real” people. Indeed, members often do meet up in real life too.
“I’ve met a fair few people from the groups, one of whom I’ve now become really good friends with,” says Muuka. “You feel you really know the people even before you meet them, and they’re nearly exactly as they come across online. Which is nice.”
Aideen, too, has met up with many Facebook group members in real life, particularly through the Cloth Nappy Library Ireland, of which she is one of four founding members. “I was much shyer before, but I have a lot more confidence now that I know a lot of these people already on Facebook,” she explains.
As well as providing information, peer advice and good company, forums and groups can be hugely enjoyable for people who feel shy in real-life social settings. Where it can be difficult to speak up in a busy group conversation in a coffee shop or health centre, the internet allows everyone to join in. The possibility of being drowned out or afraid to speak up is lessened.
Aideen agrees. “If someone was nervous about the social aspect of meeting people I’d suggest starting with Facebook. It’s great for getting to know people and gives you the courage to go to a real-life meet up.
As a new mum I found my friends were in a different place in their lives, while I was focused on babies, and I needed new friends who were free for a coffee during the day.”

Downsides

Clearly, people get huge enjoyment from parenting forums and groups, but are there any downsides? Muuka has noticed that people tend to rely heavily on forums and groups for information, even when there may be better sources. “Sometimes people stop researching things themselves – even simple things that you can find on Google. Instead of going to the doctor or using common sense, they ask online.”
Aideen also finds that Facebook groups eat time. “I come out of a Facebook trance after a few hours and find my house in a mess and jobs not done. But I would just as easily come out of a TV trance and find the same. Facebook is at least useful and it fulfils much of my need for social interaction. It makes me happy in a way that relaxing watching TV doesn’t.”
The expert warnings about the Internet are not without merit, but often, they overlook the upsides; the benefits and support that parents get from online connections. It’s not a case of excluding real-life friends, but rather finding company when it’s not available anywhere else, and at the times when you need it most.

GETTING THE BEST OUT OF THE INTERNET TRY:

Parent coach Aoife Lee (parentsupport.ie) has some tips:

✱ It can be a great comfort knowing there is help and support out there on every topic, but if you feel overwhelmed by the volume of advice, do also ask family, friends, or peers in your local parent/toddler or breastfeeding group for advice too.

✱ If you go online during night feeds, make sure you’re not over-stimulated,or going back to sleep could be difficult!

✱ Remember that while the wisdom and experience of other parents is gold, they are (mostly) not medical professionals. Weigh up all advice that you’re given online and see if it instinctively makes sense to you. If your question is medical, it’s better to check with a real-life professional.

maternity & infant

Originally posted 2016-02-23 10:12:58.