Prudent parenting in the GOOGLE AGE

The rise of double income nuclear families in urban India has coincided with the coming of age of Google and explosion of parenting websites, apps, and online forums and communities on social media. In the new millennium, its become normative for young parents, especially moms, to seek solutions for parenting problems online, rather than from their mothers
BHUMIKA K.

When Shrobona Choudhuri, a Bangalore- based school teacher, found her six-year-old son Ahaan was struggling with spelling, she sought an enjoyable way to help him rather than forcing him to learn by the traditional pedagogy of memorisation. So, she googled and found an excellent online resource which used the phonic system of teaching. Even when my son was two years old and throwing tantrums all the time, it was reassuring to read online that some other parents were experiencing the same problem, and that its just a phase which children would outgrow,” says Choudhuri, who often seeks online parenting advice.

Choudhuri is not alone in turning to the Internet for instant parenting support. Tens of thousands of parents, especially working women, in India and worldwide, log on to Google and online forums to seek advice, information, and support on a wide range of parenting issues. For the 21st century parent, the online and apps world — accessible 24/7 — offers a flood of parenting information and advice starting from coping with pregnancy to expert health advice on child development, learning resources and tracking childrens progress at school.

Worldwide, a constantly rising number of women are getting hooked on to the online support system soon after they become pregnant, and websites and apps, such as the popular Baby Center, handholds them through the nine months of pregnancy, child birth, nursing, child nurturance milestones, vaccination schedules, school progress and beyond. Online discussion forums, weekly emails, interactive interfaces, etc make the experience more real than reaching out to young mums in the neighbourhood.

And its not just millennial mums who are cyber-dependent for their parenting needs. According to a 2015 survey by the website Baby Center, USA, millennial dads (aged 18-34 who are expecting or have a child under age six) are more involved in day-to-day childcare than any generation preceding them.

Writing in The New York Times (November 4, 2017), Bruce Feiler describes this new generation of millennial parents as parennials” and outlines a series of ways in which contemporary parents are raising their children dif- ferently from previous generations. One simple but crucial difference Feiler notes is that todays moms and dads are what Rebecca Parlakian, programme director for Zero to Three, a US-based organisation that has been studying new parents for three decades, calls high-information parents” who are accustomed to turning to the Internet for any and every question. According to Parlakian, Google is the new grandparent, the new neighbour, the new nanny

A Changed World
Though the high technology comfort level of parennials is a huge factor in their relying on the Internet for parenting answers, the steady growth in the number of nuclear households in urban India is also majorly driving their reliance on the Internet. In post-liberalisation urban India, the great Indian joint family is breaking down and the new reality is the nuclear family with both parents working.

Moreover, todays working parents are less likely to live near family and be chummy with neighbours, relying on the Internet for comprehensive virtual support.

This was not the case even 10-15 years ago. Bangalore- based documentary filmmaker and journalist Vinita A. Shetty, recalls new parents asking their parents, in-laws, extended family, friends, and even over-the-wall neighbours for advice on how to manage infants and provide old-school parenting wisdom. Now that the very fabric of the society we live in has changed, parents seek out their own go-to information sites in the online world. Suddenly, it has become unfashionable and tedious to ask family and friends for parenting advice. The norm is to search online. Online, you get differing viewpoints and perspectives on any issue, and you can acquire in- depth knowledge,” says Shetty, mother of two-and-half- year-old daughter Annika.

In particular, for parents who move to a new city or country, without the traditional family sup- port system to rely on for child care and advice, the online world and mobile apps are a godsend. Dr. Hemangini Gupta, a 36-year-old postdoctoral researcher in gender studies and mother of 11-month-old Nikhil, who has recently moved to India from Canada, recalls how she and her husband resorted to the Internet for help and advice during her pregnancy and post-delivery. My son was born when I was in Montreal, a city that was new to me and where we didnt have family or friends. My partner and I found ourselves looking online for advice to understand behaviour of newborns — from things such as how to latch when breastfeeding, when to feed, what to feed, when to start semi-solids and so on. Most recently, I looked up my go-to online site for advice on how and when to wean my son. Even though we have just returned to India and have family and friends for advice, the Internet has become a trusted friend, philosopher, and guide on parenting,” says Gupta.

Parenting Resources Boom
Unsurprisingly, to cater to the huge and rising demand from parennials, a plethora of parenting and child-focused apps and websites have sprung up worldwide, and in India. Among the popular India-focused ones are BabyChakra, BabyBerry, Babyonboard, First Moms Club, Parentune, In- diaParenting, TinyStep, MyCity4Kids, ZenParent, Parent- ree and Parentlane. Promoted by nexgen edupreneurs who have stepped in to fulfill the rising demand for curated information from young parents in urban India, they cover a wide range of issues including advice from nutritionists, paediatricians, mental health counselors, education-related information, etc with most of them offering customised content.

For instance Parentlane, a social networking app that focuses on early childhood development, is designed for young mothers in the 23-35 years age group with children between 0-5 years. Vijay Anand, co-founder and CEO of Parentlane, says the apps data science algorithm studies a childs holistic development across 3,000+ variables to offer personalised recommendations to parents.

When it comes to answering personal questions related to an infants health and development, its important to have deep knowledge about the mother and child across many data points or variables, to present appropriate solutions. Our app has a ‘Discuss window that invites new parents to post their queries. They get instant answers from other parents in the community and experts. Currently, our free-of-charge app has 60,000 users across the country. The maximum activity happens among parents of newborns in the 0-2 age group, as that is the most crucial and confusing stage of child development and parenting,” says Anand, a alum of IIM-Bangalore and former senior vice president (business) of HolidayIQ.com who co-promoted Parentlane in December 2015.

Information Overload Stress
But inevitably, the miracle that is Google has its obverse, dark side. Theres accumulating evidence that the ocean of information available on the Internet is confusing and stressing out young parents. Lavanya Venkatraman, the Bangalore-based business head of the textiles fashion brand Mr. Ajay Kumar, and mother of five-year-old Siddhant, says theres so much information out there, its scary”. Theres a massive information overload — there are mothers WhatsApp groups at school, Facebook personalises my newsfeed, and there are Facebook mothers groups. Parents need to find their own balance and decide what they need and dont. For instance, I have put into practice information and advice I found online but I always tweak them to my childs personality. In a rising number of cases, young parents are now going back to traditional sources of child-rearing advice to build a culture-specific connect with their children,” says Venkatraman.

Unsurprisngly, theres emerging evidence that the ready availability of information and advice online and in particular participation in online parenting groups and discussions, is imposing high pressure and stress on young parents. A study published in Computers in Human Behaviour (May 2017) highlights that participation in online parenting platforms adds pressure on mothers to project themselves as perfect parents. The study observes that such pressure can affect mothers mental health, parenting behaviour and other relationships (with the spouse, extended family, etc) adversely.

Aarti Rajaratnam, director of the Child Guidance Center and Counseling Clinic, Salem, advises parents against readily signing up as members of online parenting groups and platforms. Signing up with online parenting groups indiscriminately can be dangerous for young parents, especially young mothers who subtly experience pressure to become great moms. A woman usually ties her entire sense of well-being and success to discharging her role of mother. When anything goes wrong, she begins to experience severe anxiety, helplessness and depression. Therefore, its advisable to avoid cross-culture groups with widely divergent value premises. Moreover in parenting groups, theres an unwritten contest to become the best parent. Therefore online groups should be carefully chosen,” says Rajaratnam.

In particular, experts counsel parents against relying on online health and medical advice. Writing in The Washington Post (October 26, 2015), Alice Callahan, a US-based author with a Ph D in nutritional biology, says: Know that no website can be a substitute for a healthcare provider.

If you think your child is really sick, dont bring her symptoms to Facebook. Get real medical care

Sheetal Avate, 39, a Bangalore-based IT professional and mother of three-year-old Aadith, concurs. Im constantly in front of the laptop, so I always rely on Google. I have used websites, when my son has taken ill, where paediatricians respond to questions posted online. They provide generic information which is useful. But you cannot fully rely on it and must take child-specific professional advice,” says Avate.

Google over Granny
The increasing preference for Google over grandmothers is also being driven by the fact that parennials have their own ideas of child development and prefer not to get into disagreements over child rearing practices with their elders. Dr. Hemangini Gupta (quoted earlier) says contemporary educated women tend to have strong views on parenting and are likely to dismiss the wisdom of family elders as old- fashioned. We like to read, research, assess and find our own path. Even with my paediatrician whom I love and trust, I dont always agree with everything she says, and will verify things she has told me and double-check online. This is now possible because of the wealth of resources available online,” says Dr. Gupta.

But Gupta warns against indiscriminately soliciting online advice from all and sundry. I only ask people with whom I have cultural affinity and similar values for advice. I have had very unpleasant experiences listening to unsolicited advice or going to websites dominated by people with alien cultural values. I maintain a small list of people whom I trust, and only solicit their suggestions,” she says.

Wisely, Than Too Well
Unsurprisingly, over-reliance on technology is increasingly being questioned. Vinita Shetty (quoted earlier) says parents natural child-rearing instincts shouldnt be totally disregarded. As parents in a modern, tech-enabled, information-rich age, we are adapting in the way we know best, and are connected with parents and resources around the world. To me, the Internet is an invaluable resource, a virtual community where I am more of a listener and note- taker. Certainly, this information helps me become a better and more informed parent. But every mothers natural child-rearing instinct should be given some weightage and factored into raising youngest children to joyously mature into confident school-goers and later, citizens,” says Shetty.

Undoubtedly, the Internet is a great parenting resource, storehouse of information, a sisterhood, a support system and more. But young parents should use it wisely, rather than too well.

The article was published in the print version of ParentsWorld February 2018 issue.

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