Monday, March 21, 2011

The Social Network

I’ve raved before about Brain, Child magazine. I really love it when it shows up in my mailbox and I usually sit down immediately and read it from cover to cover. This month there was an excellent in the magazine entitled, “The Village: How other parents influence your parenting.” As you may suspect, the influence of our communities is huge. Although many of us would like to believe that the way we raise our children is based on our own instincts, values and perhaps research and trial and error, you can’t deny that you are part of certain “networks” and that what is expected of you and your behavior can shift depending on which network you’re currently in.

The author of the piece, Jennifer Niesslein (who is also an editor of Brain, Child) talks about how we are all products of our villages, in part because we’ve chosen them (think about the neighborhood you live in, the church or synagogue you attend, the school you send your kids to) and in part because our friends and relatives have a lot of influence over how we think and behave. She uses a great example to underscore this idea, Lisa Whelchel. You remember when Lisa (Blair from The Facts of Life) wrote a parenting book that encouraged what she called “hot saucing,” or placing a few drops of hot sauce on your child’s tongue as punishment for things like talking back. In her conservative Christian network, this kind of discipline is perfectly acceptable. This is why that mother from Alaska felt comfortable going on the Dr. Phil show, where footage showed her hot saucing her children, and was shocked when she was subsequently charged with child abuse. While to those of outside this network this is obvious abuse, to those inside the network, it’s simply an authoritarian style of parenting, which is a good thing.

What about breastfeeding?

The entire time I was reading this fascinating article, I was thinking about breastfeeding and our advocacy efforts and how and when they are truly effective. Think about programs like the WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselors, which has shown time and again to drastically increase breastfeeding initiation and duration rates. It is obviously very powerful when a woman within your own network, especially if you are marginalized, has been successful at breastfeeding and can talk to you about the hows and whys. I was thrilled that when Niesslein spoke to social scientist Nicholas Christakis, co-author of Connected: The Surpising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, she specifically asked about how our views of breastfeeding have changed pretty drastically, in a fairly short period of time. Christakis confirms what breastfeeding advocates have been saying for a while: if your friends and family are breastfeeding, and you see it around you, you are more likely to do it yourself. This is why breastfeeding advocates encourage nursing in public, preferably without a cover, in order to normalize the act.

Interestingly, Christakis points out that top-down messages can work, but they really need the influence of friends to take off. So for example, you may read an article in the paper about a study that says breastfeeding is healthier for moms and babies or your pediatrician or even Oprah may convey the same message. However, you’re much more likely to pay attention to the message if a friend says, “Hey did you know recent research shows breastfeeding is best?”

Those of us with what social scientists call “high transitivity” are what social media folks call “influencers.” And if you’re the influencer in your network, if you breastfeed and talk about the joys of breastfeeding and nurse in front of your friends and family, they are much more likely to breastfeed too.

Negativity about breastfeeding online

As we already know, many women are living in communities separate from their family and long-time friends. In this day and age, a lot of women turn to the internet to find information and support, particularly on personal blogs and parenting websites. Although there are personal bloggers with a decent amount of “trust capital” and influence online, the websites with the most influence and high transitivity tend to be the major parenting sites. And a quick scan of them shows that most are much more likely to paint breastfeeding in a negative light than in a positive one.

Of course there will always be women for whom breastfeeding was not a good experience, and those women’s voices and stories are valid. But what happens to our breastfeeding advocacy efforts when the women who have a wonderful breastfeeding experience are made to feel like an anomaly and quickly learn to keep quiet lest they make anyone else feel bad, and the stories that get the most airplay are about how difficult breastfeeding can be? Today alone I found an article on Yahoo!’s Shine parenting website entitled, "Six Things No One Tells You About Breastfeeding.” The six things include “clogged ducts might haunt you” and “your body will not know how much milk to make.” That is reassuring.

Or how about a recent post on Babble’s Strollerderby blog, “I Quit Breastfeeding After Doing it in Public. Once” which describes a baby who “wouldn’t latch” for a mom who “had very little milk” (yet somehow still managed to get mastitis). This mom stopped breastfeeding and went to exclusive pumping for 4 months after a bad experience trying to nurse in public (no one harassed her, the baby just couldn’t latch on right and was crying). Every major parenting site, from Mom Logic to Parent Dish, has their own version of these horror stories and because they elicit such a huge response, they get run again and again.

Even the rare time when you find a positive article about breastfeeding, the comments section will almost immediately be derailed with a chorus of “not everyone can breastfeed!” and “I was unable to make any milk” or “all of my friends who breastfed have sick kids, mine have all been formula fed from the start and are the healthiest in the bunch!” The comments are so consistent that it’s almost eerie and the feeling you get is that no one wants to hear about how wonderful breastfeeding is.
So how can we, as breastfeeding advocates, combat the negativity? Is the online network becoming more influential than our real-life networks? And what happens when we’re getting polar opposite messages from our networks? As Niesslein states in the article, “It’s a little scary to think that decisions we consider our own can be swayed by people we don’t even know, especially when those decisions affect our children.” And what happens if we’re swayed to do things that aren’t best for our children, based on someone else’s bad experiences?

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