Social media’s impact on modern parenting

Oct 1, 2010 at 9:40 a.m. ET

Social media is the modern coffee klatch -- a place where people gather and converse. But that conversation can take can cruel directions, as it did in the case of an infant’s recent death. Activists attacked the mother’s parenting decisions, going so far as to say she killed her son by having him circumcised. How exactly is social media impacting modern parenting?

woman on computer

As social media grows in popularity, more voices are speaking loudly—wanting to be heard. Sometimes that's fine, but other times, like in the recent case of the death of a 51-day-old baby, that can be disconcerting. Rather than supporting and comforting the mother of the child, so-called activists attacked her parenting decisions and blamed her for her son's death.

Joshua Haskins suffered from a congenital heart condition and died of complications of the condition, according to news reports. However some people -- not medical professionals involved with the case, but rather those who learned about it online -- claimed that the baby's recent circumcision was to blame. The mother faced cruel comments accusing her of killing her son with the circumcision. There was even a threat of a demonstration at the hospital or the funeral.

Was the mom to blame? No, says Dr. Anatoly Belilovsky, Medical Director of Belilovsky Pediatrics in New York. "There is no medical reason to discourage circumcision, and no reason to blame the mother for this infant's death," says Belilovsky.

The loudest voices

As the Haskins case revealed, some people are willing to capitalize on tragedy to push their own agenda. That is a sad reality, and one that can be like salt rubbed on a wound.

"There have always been people bent on presenting their prejudices as laws of nature; ignorance has always spoken louder than reason; and bullying by guilt trips also has a long, distinguished maternal history. It saddens me that this mother's online revelations, made in search of sympathy and understanding, instead demonstrated the extent to which aggressive ignorance -- 'trolling' -- pervades the social media," says Belilovsky.

The mother repeatedly pleaded for the trolls to let her family grieve...and eventually they relented slightly. But the damage from the reaction to the death was already done. "It's shocking how quickly other mothers turned on one of their own who was wounded...Like any pack of hyenas, they attacked because they found a victim, isolated and vulnerable," says Belilovsky.

How social media impacts parenting decisions

It's clear that there are many loud voices in play on the internet. And many of them have firm, unyielding beliefs that they aren't afraid to share -- but that doesn't mean you have to listen. "People gather, opinions are voiced, the loudest are heard. There is the same danger of groupthink -- of suspending one's better judgment in order to fit into a clique -- and of being led by that village idiot everyone is afraid of antagonizing," says Belilovsky.

It's easy to be swayed by the loudest voices telling you that your decisions are wrong … but it's harder to stick by your beliefs. However, when it comes to parenting, it's important that you do what you think is best.

That can lead to misinformation, bad advice and worse. Fortunately, unlike in-person social settings, you can ignore people with just a click or two. "The choice of sources of advice is much wider on the Internet, and walking away from a bunch of bullies is much easier," says Belilovsky.

Sharing online

Joshua's mother chose to share her son's struggle online, opening herself up to the harsh criticisms that eventually came. Though she certainly didn't ask for such reactions, her use of the internet did make them much more likely.

"I think everyone has the right to share as much about themselves as they wish, as well as make their own choices about what they read and what they believe -- but there is one limitation to this rule: your right to disclose information stops being absolute when the information is no longer about you," says Belilovsky.

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