My baby was three weeks old when I received the first hurt text from my mother. “Why don’t you call? I know things!” she said. The cynic in me wondered what exactly she knew. The origin of black holes? Who killed Kennedy? If polar bears can survive the shrinking ice? Yet, the daughter in me understood perfectly. My mother and I now shared something profound — we were both parents. And she wanted to guide me through the terrain she had traversed 35 years earlier. Only I had a parenting GPS already: Google.
During my pregnancy my mother and I were closer than we had been for years. Every time we talked or visited she calmed my fears with anecdotes about how smoothly her pregnancy with me had gone. When I expressed my mounting fears about labor, she didn’t play down the painfulness. She emphasized how capable and strong she thought I was. I couldn’t recall a time I appreciated my mother as much or felt like I needed her more.
But once I had the baby, the object my mother and I assumed would keep us close in the weeks following my son’s birth — the phone — actually drove a wedge between us.
My mother offered to stay with us when we brought the baby home. Since our apartment is small, I told her if my husband and I needed help, I would call. But I didn’t. For one, I was bone-tired. Sleep-deprived, drained and overwhelmed as most new parents are, it took a lot less effort for me to Google than to talk to my mother. So, with my baby on my chest, I often found myself using my smartphone to search about everything from the fine pimples dotting my baby’s eyelids, to the color of his poop, to an explanation of his startle reflex.
I’m not the only one. According to Google consumer surveys, new and expecting parents conduct twice as many web searches overall as non-parents; and across the pregnancy, newborn, and toddler stages, most of those searches concern health. But given this instant set of answers at our tired fingertips, is it possible that we new parents are replacing Grandma’s homespun advice — with Google’s?
Another reason I turned to the Web may be more psychological. Searching the Internet can offer a level of reassurance a human voice cannot. In a recently published study called “Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge,” Yale researchers found that participants who conducted online research evaluated themselves as more informed than the control group who had not, even about topics unrelated to their Internet searches. This suggests an interesting takeaway for device-obsessed new parents. Embarking on the toughest job most of us will ever have and consistently feeling unprepared while we do it, the act of searching the Internet may offer something beyond actual knowledge: confidence, despite our blind spots. To this point, Matthew Fisher, one of the study’s authors, told The Wall Street Journal, “People using the Internet are less likely to appreciate the gaps in their understanding.”
One of the knowledge gaps new parents increasingly experience is the transfer of knowledge about child rearing from one generation to the next. Search engines may seem invaluable, but they’re not all that. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Florida concluded that Internet health searches are frequently unreliable, with users bearing the responsibility of categorizing what they find as sound advice or quackery. For example, a search for “newborn vaccinations” retrieves results from The Centers for Disease Control as well as a network of homeopathic sites that claim the hepatitis B vaccine, which is routinely given to infants, causes serious neurological and immunological disorders. Though there is no causal evidence linking hepatitis B to illnesses such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, information debunking the harmfulness of the vaccine may or may not emerge depending on what search terms are used.
Why not test out tried-and-true, person-to-person guidance, then? When my mother offered unsolicited age-old advice — say, that dark beer stimulates breast milk production, or that baking soda soothes infant gas — I couldn’t resist double-checking her suggestions on Google, weighing the authority of my mother’s advice against the Internet’s vast parenting dossier.
In the end, my mother came out looking pretty good. And it’s not just because Google agreed with her. Take my family’s generations-old infant gas remedy. The fix: Drink a glass of water containing a smidge of baking soda, then nurse. I had been treating my son’s gas with over-the-counter gripe water, which also contains baking soda, with little success. Then I tried my family method and it worked — like gangbusters. My son went from fussing away the afternoons to napping like a champ.
I have not stopped searching the Web for perspectives on sleep training or information about developmental milestones. (It’s so convenient!) But I do call my mother more now. Google doesn’t know everything and neither does my mother. Yet, my mother, lucky for me, knows a few things Google doesn’t. The risk of searching so much on our devices is that some of us have forgotten to use them to talk to our parents — about our children. However informed a Google search may make us feel, it doesn’t impart love — the added value that comes with my mother’s advice. And implicitly, I think this, more than her practical guidance, was the wisdom she wanted to share with me all along.