- When a parent is overwhelmed by information, they feel more confused than knowledgeable.
- Parents who experience information overload feel like less effective parents.
- Parents who are less confident are more likely to need to search for more and more information online.
A new study published in August 2023 looked at “information overload” in parents (translation: when a parent feels overwhelmed and stressed by the amount of information available, resulting in feeling more confused than knowledgeable). When a parent experiences information overload, they may have more difficulty making informed decisions. Information overload can happen when there is too much information, when the information is too complex, or when it is contradictory.
This study included 214 parents of children under four years old in Sweden and examined how parents’ online search habits were related to their self-efficacy and experience of information overload.
The Main Findings
This study found that parents with lower levels of parenting self-efficacy (aka lower parenting confidence) showed increasing rates of searching for parenting information online over time. However, the relationship didn’t go the other way—more searching online wasn’t related to increased self-efficacy in a parent.
Translation: parents who are less confident are more likely to feel like they need to search for more and more information online but this online research doesn’t lead to parents feeling more confident. The authors state that “parents might need help to digest, understand, and apply the information gathered online for it to strengthen their [parenting self-efficacy].”
Experiencing information overload also predicted lower parental self-efficacy and significantly increased online searching a year later. Translation: parents who experienced information overload felt like less effective parents and were still looking for the answers they needed a year later. The researchers suggested that “parents who lack the tools to deal with online information might feel overwhelmed by it, and the confusion and stress it generates may lower their feelings of self-efficacy.”
Does the Quality of the Website Matter?
The study also asked parents about what types of websites they visited for parenting information and compared parents who used only reputable government-run websites to those who also used non-governmental websites for information (which may be more likely to be inaccurate or provide conflicting information). This study was conducted in Sweden, which has many helpful government-run websites. Parents who used both governmental and non-governmental websites reported higher levels of information overload than those who only used governmental websites. In addition, in parents who used only government websites, information overload did not predict lower levels of self-efficacy.
Translation: parents who use more reputable and accurate websites may be less likely to experience information overload from online searching which helps to preserve their parenting confidence.
Researchers suggested that parents who access a wide variety of sources may not only be exposed to more information, but also to more conflicting information. This may make them feel less confident about what the ”right” parenting approaches might be. Additionally, if parents are getting more information from unreliable sources, they might try ineffective parenting strategies, which could fail and harm their confidence in their own parenting skills. This might create a negative cycle in which conflicting or confusing information online makes parents feel less effective which then leads to more online searching, which only increases the experience of information overload which further harms their parenting confidence.
The researchers also suggest that nongovernmental websites may be less practical and more likely to promote “intensive parenting” which “can be stressful for parents because it places high demands on being a ‘perfect’ parent, without offering clear advice that can be helpful.”
This was a small study based on an online survey—it included mostly highly educated mothers so may not represent the average parent. Because data came from an online survey, it may have been more likely to include parents who search online more frequently. The researchers also did not look at the child’s behavior problems—a more challenging child could lead to both more online searching and feeling less effective as a parent. All data was also based on self-report which is likely biased. For example, most people over-report time spent online. The data was also collected during the pandemic—when more parents were likely to be overwhelmed and searching for information online due to a lack of social support.
Another limitation of this study is that it did not distinguish between reliable and unreliable nongovernmental websites. It’s likely that some of the parents using both government and non-governmental websites were still only getting information from reputable sources, which would affect their group’s outcome. Parents who use websites that are not based on reliable sources and professional knowledge may show even higher rates of information overload and lower parental self-efficacy than this study suggests.
This study was conducted in Sweden, which has a popular government-run website providing accessible health and parenting information. In countries without such government-provided websites, other reputable sources that are fact-checked and run by experts serve a similar role to the governmental websites in this study.
How to Find Reputable Information
So how do you find reputable information online without getting overwhelmed?
- Focus on reliable, evidence-based sources. Look for websites with information written or reviewed by licensed and/or credentialed medical and mental health professionals. Ideally, the website should cite research from peer-reviewed journals to back up the information provided.
- Limit how many sources you use. Focus on a few websites, apps, or books that you trust to provide you with high-quality information and search for answers from them, rather than doing a Google search and sifting through millions of results.
- Avoid undirected browsing. Try to focus your searches on specific information or advice you need, and limit the amount of time you spend browsing to avoid spending hours looking at content that might leave you more confused or stressed.
- Remember that you are the expert on your child. Even the most reliable and accurate websites do not know your child or your unique family situation. Trust yourself to make the decisions that are right for your child and your family.