It wasn’t always this way. Parents—mothers, especially—weren’t always bombarded with parenting-related #content every waking moment. But with the lure of Instagram’s easy scroll at your fingertips, it’s hard to avoid seeing the images and reading the stories of other mothers with perfect hair, clean countertops and well-behaved children dressed exclusively in sunset-hued, natural fibers. And it’s hard to avoid comparing yourself to these 'momfluencers' as a result.
A new study published in “Computers in Human Behavior” shows that being confronted with images of “idealized motherhood”, whether from your own friends and family or from momfluencers on social media, can increase your anxiety, envy and sense of comparison and put increased pressure on your mental health.
“Idealized portrayals of motherhood aren't new to the media,” says Ciera Kirkpatrick, PhD, an assistant professor at University of Nebraska–Lincoln, one of the two study authors. “In the ’70s and ’80s, idealized portrayals of motherhood were all over magazines in the form of ‘Celebrity Mom Profiles.’ But now, they're all over social media. And while it was celebrities glamorizing motherhood in those magazines, anyone can glamorize motherhood today because of social media.”
Social media has transformed the way motherhood is portrayed. Because now anyone can put out idealized motherhood content today—from celebrities and reality stars to your cousin and nextdoor neighbor—there's just so much more of it, and it’s so much more accessible, Dr. Kirkpatrick notes. And the effects of all those 'perfect'-seeming posts can be harmful.
Looking for a causal link between social media influencers and anxiety
Dr. Kirkpatrick, a first-time mom herself, noticed early on after having her baby that social media was beginning to have a profound effect on her own motherhood experience—and not in a healthy way. “As I noticed that I was comparing myself to portrayals of motherhood on social media and feeling poorly after doing so, I became increasingly passionate about this topic and how I could channel this phenomenon in my research to help other mothers,” she tells Motherly.
The theory that social media influencers can have negative effects on users’ lives isn’t novel, and existing research shows how the idealization of motherhood on social media can be correlated with potentially negative user experiences, too.
But Dr. Kirkpatrick’s research stands out because it was looking for causation, not just correlation. Thanks to a background in experimental design, Dr. Kirkpatrick was able to craft a study “that could actually provide evidence of a causal relationship between these real posts on Instagram and negative outcomes [such as envy and state anxiety].”
Instagram versus reality
In the study, Dr. Kirkpatrick and co-author Sungkyoung Lee asked 464 new mothers (who had at least one child aged 3 or younger) to review 20 Instagram posts, 10 taken from the accounts of “mommy influencers” and 10 taken from the accounts of “everyday mothers.”
Half of the posts represented idealized motherhood (which Dr. Kirkpatrick explains as presenting “idealistic admirable depictions of motherhood that were solely focused on the positive aspects of parenting and did not mention associated difficulties,”) while the other half were non-idealized (presenting “more authentic, non-idealistic depictions of motherhood that did include mention of the difficulties associated with parenting.")
After reviewing the posts, the new mothers were asked to rate their feelings of social comparison, perceived similarity, envy and anxiety. The results showed that when new moms were exposed to idealized portrayals of motherhood, they had higher levels of envy and anxiety.
“And interestingly, it didn't matter if the idealized portrayal was from a social media influencer [a "mommy influencer"] or an average Instagram user [an "everyday mom"],” says Dr. Kirkpatrick.
“Idealized content from either of these sources had the same negative effect—indicating that anyone putting out idealized motherhood content like this can have harmful effects on new moms. It's not just a problem with influencers.” It further highlights the fact that content idealized for Instagram is far from reality.
Vulnerability in new motherhood
The postpartum period, of course, is a highly vulnerable time. New motherhood is synonymous with major shifts across all aspects of a mother’s life, including mental, physical, and economic states, Dr. Kirkpatrick says, which puts mothers in a position of vulnerability.
One in which they may be even more susceptible to envy and anxiety.
New motherhood is also a time marked by isolation, and social media can be a lifeline for those who feel disconnected from the world outside their home.
“Despite having become busier with the new roles and responsibilities associated with being a mother, research done in Russia has indicated that mothers are the most socially active during the first year of their child’s life,” writes Dr. Kirkpatrick.
Social media offers opportunities for connection and friendship at a time when mothers may feel like they’ve lost their pre-baby social life. But it comes with strings attached: the comparisons and lower self esteem that are likely to result from viewing thousands of staged, idealized images, which the study authors defined for participants as “perfect or better than reality.”
Viewing photos of shiny, happy moms with shiny, happy kids can make you feel like you don’t measure up, even though you’re not really getting the full picture.
The pull of the perfect post
“Despite this research, I too find myself posting what some would consider to be idealized depictions—it's just so easy and tempting to do,” admits Dr. Kirkpatrick. “As humans, we want to show off the happy, good parts of our life. But because of this research, I've tried to make it a point to also showcase the difficulties and challenges.”
It’s all about curating your feed to find the right balance—both in terms of who you follow and what you post. “I think it's important that in the midst of posting positively biased content, we also portray the reality of motherhood, because talking about the hardships can help mothers [especially new moms] feel less alone in what they are experiencing and feeling,” adds Dr. Kirkpatrick. “Being a mom is hard enough—we don't need to make it harder on each other!”
Ciera Kirkpatrick, PhD, is an assistant professor at University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Chae J. “Am I a Better Mother Than You?”: Media and 21st-Century Motherhood in the Context of the Social Comparison Theory. Communication Research. 2015;42(4):503-525. doi:10.1177/0093650214534969
Djafarova E, Trofimenko O. Exploring the relationships between selfpresentation and self-esteem of mothers in social media in Russia. 2017. Computers in Human Behavior, 73, 20–27. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.03.021
Kirkpatrick CE, Lee S. Comparisons to picture-perfect motherhood: How Instagram's idealized portrayals of motherhood affect new mothers' well-being. Computers in Human Behavior. 2022 Dec 1;137:107417.