Dr. Spock to Dr. Google: The Internet and the Evolution of Parenting

Information in my childhood home, like the cookware, furniture, and most everything else, was high-quality, sturdy, and meant to last. My parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia in 1990, as well as the Year Book supplements to update their investment annually. (Good thing, too, because the entries for Germany and the U.S.S.R. were completely rewritten within two years.) For health information, we had the Physician’s Desk Reference or the library to follow up on what our doctors told us. For cooking, we relied on the Betty Crocker and Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks, as well as a couple of tried-and-true church cookbooks. The only television news we watched started at 6 p.m. and covered local happenings for thirty minutes. National news started at 6:30 p.m. and was delivered by Tom Brokaw’s familiar and trustworthy voice. Brokaw and his colleagues reported the major stories of national or international importance: the discovery of the hole in the ozone, the Challenger explosion, the Chernobyl meltdown, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Speculation was reined in with phrases like “it is believed that” and “there are reports of.” News stories often ended with “We’ll bring you more as this story develops.”

We were early adopters of the internet, and it did provide me with more cutting-edge research to inform, for example, my high school science project, but so did a day trip to the library at a nearby university. In the mid-nineties, the internet and the limitless information it could provide was more of a novelty for me than the first place I went to learn something. I used it to read about upcoming episodes of my favorite television drama, find amusing lists like “Ways to Be Annoying,” and message my boyfriend on ICQ.

Over time, the internet became the place to receive news updates in real time and quickly settle arguments. I came of age at the same time the internet did, and I learned to evaluate sources as bad ones became prevalent and also recognize the limitations of an information source where anyone could publish anything. If I tried a Betty Crocker recipe and it failed, for example, I was probably to blame, but if I tried an allrecipes.com submission from user CooxALot123 and it failed, the problem may not have been with me. By college, I was using research databases daily, and soon after leaving academia, I was working full-time in a public library at the reference desk. Discerning reputable sources of information for the general public was literally my job, and I was good at it. And then my husband and I started a family, and suddenly I didn’t know what I didn’t know about raising kids.

My mother, like many of her peers, had turned to Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care for all her parenting questions. (“Or,” she told me, “we just did what our parents did.”) Dr. Spock’s advice was so ubiquitous that I remember, as a self-involved teenager, hearing two of my aunts compare notes on his book when their kids were babies and toddlers. Now, maybe the name of the famous pediatrician stuck in my head mostly because of a fictional Spock that I admired, but I recognized the name nearly twenty years later when I was perusing parenting books at a bookstore. Dr. Spock (and my parents and grandparents) had a lot of competition by then, though. Dr. Sears and his attachment parenting had gained traction. Dr. Harvey Karp’s books promised parents The Happiest Baby on the Block. Heidi Murkoff of What to Expect When You’re Expecting fame had spun her title recognition off into What to Expect the First Year, What to Expect the Second Year, What to Expect the Toddler Years, and so on – and she wasn’t even a doctor.

When I bought pregnancy tests that I was sure would read positive, I also purchased my own copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and checked out every book on pregnancy at the library where I worked. I also became more tuned in to the plethora of health warnings and parenting research that (thanks to the 24-hour news cycle) had made their way from the pages of medical journals to the top-of-the-hour headlines on MSNBC and the top of my social media news feed. This is when I realized that Dr. Spock’s competition wasn’t just coming from other books. I read everything I could get my hands on. I questioned much of it, and I fact checked frequently. I felt like I couldn’t afford to ignore any of it. I learned that I should not take ibuprofen or asprin for the frequent headaches that pregnancy (and, no doubt, eliminating caffeine, because that was disallowed now, too) brought on. That left acetaminophen, but that, too, had potential for liver damage. Maybe lying down with a cold compress was best – but who can do that while working? When my mother asked me how I was feeling during our weekly phone call and I gave her an earful about phthalates, PFOA, and quaternium-15, she was overwhelmed as well. “We didn’t know any of that when I had you,” she told me, more than once.

In some ways, the birth of a child is a relief, when you’ve been solely responsible for making decisions that did not just affect you for nine months. At least after your baby exits the womb, you potentially have a partner, extended family, and in some cultures, a whole village to share the burden. You can relax, a little, because your body doesn’t have to be the one holding the baby all the time.

Of course, parenthood means that you never really stop worrying, ever, and the volume of information available to parents today does very little to offer reassurance – unless you learn how to manage it. All those Google ads and news articles on social media and daily emails about pregnancy and how you’re doing it wrong magically transform into Google ads and news articles on social media and daily emails about babies and the hidden dangers waiting to hurt them once your due date has come and gone. Is your baby sleeping enough? Is your baby sleeping too much? Are you teaching your baby to self-soothe? Are you spoiling your baby? Is it even possible to spoil your baby? Two years out, ads and articles and emails don’t lessen; they just change. Is your toddler drinking enough milk? Do toddlers really need to drink cow’s milk? Is cow’s milk dangerous? Should you raise a vegan baby? By the time we had a three-year-old, I heard or read about the dangers of both screen time and kidnappers daily. And so on.

When our second child came along, I was a bit more confident as a parent, since our firstborn was growing into a thoughtful and intelligent little preschooler. Clearly, we hadn’t completely screwed him up, and I didn’t have time to fact check every parenting concern that appeared at the top of my newsfeed on social media between taking care of an infant and chasing after a thrill-seeking three-year-old. I did spend some time thinking about why I had been so stressed about getting things right with our older son, when I had basically all the world’s knowledge on parenting accessible from a device that fit into my pants pocket. I realized that maybe access to all that information was the key. Headlines can sensationalize news stories to earn clicks and sell copies, but statistics and hard facts don’t lie. Maybe it was worth following up a terrifying news story with finding out how often that sort of thing actually happens. Instead of turning back to the same parenting books I’d read three years earlier, I researched how French parents did things, in the hopes that I could learn to be as chill as the French. In doing this, I learned some techniques that jibed with (surprise) the way my parents and grandparents had done things.

While we now hear about more terrible things happening in the U.S., especially to children, and people by and large assume that crime keeps getting worse every year, we are actually living in one of the safest times in the history of the United States. The supposedly terrible crime rate is merely perception because of the broad reach of news and the way we internalize it. Twenty-five years ago, if I lived in Cleveland and wanted to read a newspaper article from Austin, Texas, I would probably have to go to my local library and ask the librarian to track it down for me. Now, the Cleveland news site runs news stories from other cities to guarantee it always has fresh content. Certain crimes, like kidnappings, make national headlines – assuming the victim is young enough, pretty enough, or white enough. Even if we only hear of one of these stories a month, in a nation of 74 million children, we internalize it differently than we do a detailed report about how much crime has dropped since the 1990s. We remember a child’s face; we don’t remember the dull report on crime statistics.

But it’s not just crime that worries us; it’s also health hazards that lurk in products we use every day and things we should or shouldn’t be doing so our kids don’t grow up irreparably damaged. There’s a new report of some hidden danger or worrisome parenting trend every day. So where do all these hyped-up dangers putting parents on high alert – often without much substantiating evidence – come from? They are, in large part, an inevitable offshoot of the 24-hour news cycle. With several major news networks dedicated to round-the-clock reporting, through television, livestream, and text articles, those networks need new content to deliver to their eager consumers before their competitors do. The same is true with the many parenting sites and networks, and parents make easy targets. We will do anything to keep our kids safe, so of course if we see a headline about something we should or shouldn’t be doing to give our children the best life possible, we click. By scouring abstracts of academic journals, journalists have found a goldmine of clickbait. The uptick in health hazard reporting targeted at parents was inevitable. The problem lies in the media’s attempts to disseminate the information in those articles for the general public. Between badly executed studies, researchers with incentives to favor specific findings, and journalists who are ill-equipped to spot a bad study (let alone accurately report to the public what it could mean), it’s only wise to question sensational headlines about “the latest findings.”

Moderation is also key to navigating the overwhelming amount of information that is out there. If I could point to one major piece of advice from my mother, it would be “Everything in moderation.” My dad’s family has a favorite anecdote about my grandfather being in the hospital, on the upswing from a major illness. He was just starting to eat food and keep it down, and someone was helping him maneuver the spoon to his mouth. After a couple of bites, he turned the next spoonful away. “I don’t like to overindulge,” he said. My grandfather was being funny, but this is also a prime example of how he lived his life. (And he must have done something right, because he lived to the age of 97.)

Moderating my intake of information, especially about parenting, was key to not drowning in a sea of things to worry about, as was moderating my reaction to it. I knew this, but I needed a strategy for success. Then my research on French parenting hit on a technique for sleep training that can, in fact, be applied to all sorts of problems: The Pause. It’s the happy medium of sleep training, and it became my new strategy not only for dealing with a new baby who was showing me how easy his brother had been, but also for dealing with parenting headlines designed to stress me out and make me click. If it flashed across my newsfeed and sounded concerning but outlandish, I didn’t give in to the click. The funny thing about splashy headlines is that they are often debunked – or at least tempered – by journalists themselves, within a day or two of their publication. Even very real, very frightening kidnapping stories are often followed by renewed reports of how much kidnappings have dropped off overall in recent years – if we bother to listen to those news reports.If things are truly important on a national level, they stay in the headlines. If they’re not, they fade away. If they’re disproven, then that itself becomes a headline. The 24-hour news cycle moderates itself, given a Pause of roughly 24 hours.

Take, for instance, the splashy headlines that popped up toward the end of June 2019 about today’s youth growing bony “horns” at the bases of their skulls due to tablet and mobile phone usage. If that won’t get the attention of concerned adults everywhere, what will? The Washington Post headline read, “’Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.” News outlets across the country were quick to pick up the story – but some of them, especially those specializing in science news, dug a bit deeper. The original story referenced a year-old study from Australia that was done by a chiropractor and not only made no mention of horns, but also did not track how much mobile device usage its participants had engaged in. In addition, the lead author on the study did not disclose his side business selling posture-correcting devices under the name Dr. Posture. No conflict of interest there, right? The Post added an update to its story five days later and walked back some of the claims as all of this information came to light, but by then, the misinterpreted story itself was the headline. “Debunked: The absurd story about smartphones causing kids to sprout horns,” the Ars Technica headline read. “No, you’re not growing horns because of your phone,” patronized CNET.

I’m not a luddite proposing a return to the sturdy (but frequently outdated) information sources of our past, but I do advocate practicing moderation with the vast troves of information available via the internet. Having that much information available at my fingertips did change our lives for the better, but only after I listened to the wisdom of my forebears and learned to respond to it with more logic than emotion. My family eats less processed meat and more fresh and frozen produce, thanks to my fervent, pregnant research all those years ago. We also vaccinate. As for the daily onslaught of news designed to convince me that danger lurks in our shampoo and in every windowless van, l have learned to moderate with my own research, trust history and statistics, and wait for the news cycle to correct itself. As important as it is to remain an engaged citizen in an ever-changing world, waiting a day to see if an outlier health crisis really is a crisis has become vital to maintaining my sanity.

Aside from providing news and health information, having an internet-connected smartphone makes nighttime questions from precocious three-year-olds both more manageable and less reasonable. “Are there siphonophores in this world?” my middle child asked at bedtime one night, hours after watching an episode of Octonauts. My children know that their trivia questions can usually be answered with ease. When I hesitate or say I don’t know the answers to their questions, the next question is, “Well, can’t you just look it up on your phone?” If I had asked my own mother about siphonophores at that age, we may have had to wait until the next trip to the library to look up siphonophore in a science encyclopedia. Were she were feeling particularly indulgent, she may have broken down the word to the Greek siphon, “pipe,” and made an educated guess. As my own child asked me that question in the age of the smartphone, I was able to answer “yes” and show him a picture of a Portuguese man o’ war ten seconds after he asked.

Of course, I then pocketed my smartphone immediately (lest he or I start to develop a horn).

About the Author

Kari Sommers

Kari Sommers graduated from Bluffton College and completed graduate coursework at Miami University. After ten years of working in both academic and public libraries, she took a break to raise a family while volunteering in local school libraries. She currently lives in Dover, Ohio with her husband, three children,one cat, and a frog.