Several years ago, Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan noticed something curious as she scrolled through Facebook: Many of her female friends used an image of their child as a personal profile photo. Even Schoppe-Sullivan made the switch without fully realizing the implications.
“It just kind of dawned on me at one point, ‘Hey that’s your identity, that’s a really profound statement,’” she told Mashable. “It’s saying, ‘This is who I am right now.’”
Of course, plenty of new moms see Facebook as simply a way of sharing joyous baby-related updates with family and friends.
Schoppe-Sullivan, however, thought something more complicated might be going on, particularly as moms tried to navigate the tricky terrain of balancing their new identity with their old one.
As a professor of human sciences and psychology at The Ohio State University, she set out to understand if and when women seek validation on Facebook for their roles as mothers, and whether they’re at greater risk of depressive symptoms when they do so. She was already evaluating new parenthood in a long-term study and decided to explore those new questions in her ongoing research.
“A lot of moms may feel pressured to portray this very positive image of motherhood.”
The results, published last week in Sex Roles, may make new moms reconsider why they use Facebook to post about their children. While the social media platform can offer guidance and support from a large community, frequent posting for some users can also amplify their anxiety about motherhood.
Schoppe-Sullivan and her co-authors analyzed data from 127 participants and found that when women felt more societal pressure to be perfect mothers and viewed motherhood as central to their identity, they were more likely to share child-related updates and photos. The majority of moms in the study did use their baby’s image as a profile photo at some point.
The mothers who strove for perfection as parents and sought external validation for their maternal role also expressed stronger emotional responses — both positive and negative — to the frequency and nature of their friends’ likes and comments..
That relationship with Facebook may have come at a cost. Nine months after giving birth, those same mothers reported more depressive symptoms like having a poor appetite, not being able to shake off the blues and experiencing restless sleep.
The study couldn’t pinpoint a cause-and-effect dynamic between a new mom’s desire for validation, her increased Facebook use and a greater risk for symptoms of depression, but Schoppe-Sullivan believes there could be a direct link.
“A lot of moms may feel pressured to portray this very positive image of motherhood, and if on the inside you’re not feeling that good, I think that could be detrimental,” she said.
The study does have some important limitations. Schoppe-Sullivan surveyed well-educated, employed women who were mostly white, which means the results aren’t nationally representative. The participants also self-reported their social media use, which can be a reliable way to account for their habits but isn’t necessarily the most accurate method.
“This is an evolving way of representing your identity and your family and what’s important to you.”
Schoppe-Sullivan and her co-authors did control for several factors, including maternal age, education and personality traits that might make participants more prone to experiencing depression. Only one of five key traits — neuroticism — was associated with a mother’s more intense emotional reaction to if and how people responded to her Facebook posts. The researchers also controlled for depressive symptoms at three months postpartum.
While some may be quick to use the study’s findings as a justification for judging new moms who constantly post photos of their newborn, that’s not the point Schoppe-Sullivan is trying to make.
Like with any personal social media post, users are trying to carefully craft their identity. New mothers, in particular, encounter unyielding expectations about how they should behave, which can feel magnified on a platform like Facebook.
They may feel pressure to adhere to impossibly high parenting standards, said Schoppe-Sullivan, and turn to Facebook for both support in meeting those expectations and validation that they’re fulfilling a stereotypical maternal role.
“This is an evolving way of representing your identity and your family and what’s important to you,” she said.
The working women in the study, she added, may have wanted to defy stereotypes about mothers who have careers and prove to friends and family that devotion to their child came first.
Some moms who post frequent updates and photos of their child may feel none of these pressures and care little about validation. But for those who notice that frequent Facebook posts involve stress and angst, Schoppe-Sullivan had some simple advice: take a break.
That can mean turning off notifications, posting less frequently and finding other ways to distribute photos to family members and friends eager to see them.
“There are ways to manage this,” said Schoppe-Sullivan, “so you’re not necessarily getting sucked into it.”