Keeping up with the Healthy Jones’s: Health Guilt and Health Information Overload

I had an interesting conversation last night at a family Easter dinner. Many of my cousins have just started having babies and the conversation at the dinner table has become filled with discussion on the challenges of securing daycare (two years before needing it), sleep deprivation, yoga for babies, and the anxiety of first-time parenting. What struck me throughout the conversation were the experiences of parenting by the different generations  of my family. Todays new parents seem to face an endless supply of information about how to best prepare your baby for the world, from Baby Einstein toys, to BPA free bottles and organic pureed something or other. My one cousin mentioned panicking when googling “babies waving” that her daughter might be exhibiting signs of autism because she had not started waving yet (I’m happy to report my new little cousin is waving away now at 10 months). The internet can be an anxiety-fueling environment for todays parents that can google and google, and google some more about potential health hazards and health benefits of almost anything.

My 93 year old great aunt (who refuses to touch a computer) reminds us all that she figured it out when parenting without any of these sources of information, just logic and the help of “community wisdom”. Many parents today might consider the internet our generation’s source of “community wisdom”, but what is lost in this wisdom when there is no personal face? What does anonymity of the internet do to regulating the information? How do todays parent decide what is a legitimate source of health information? Furthermore, how much pressure does this need to sift through the barrage of information put on new parents? And, at what point does this pressure make individuals feel disempowered when seeing information that they are unsure of how to follow-up on due to structural barriers?

When discussing entertainment education this past week in class, I was left wondering how often these snippits of health information embedded in popular TV shows address advocating for societal changes compared to encouraging individual behviour change. For a new parent, the heavy burden of staying up to date with all the new health advice to ensure “responsible parenting” could be potentially eased with greater emphasis on public health programs for all new moms and dads. For example, my cousins were talking about the health risks of watching TV for children under the age of 2, and as a result the importance of finding daycares with no-TV mandates. These cousins also are professionals with available money to seek out these daycares. Public daycare programs regulated by the government could ensure money did not impact whether or not children attended a no-TV daycare or not. Similarly, the “Don’t do drugs” messages à la Saved by the Bell and Degrassi, surely do provide some positive messages to youth about ways to stand up against peer pressure, but peer pressure may only be one side of the story for someone getting involved in drug use. Peer pressure may be low on a teenagers radar compared to other structural barriers or limitations facing their individual choices. So this leaves me with a question: how do we decide when providing health information aimed at individual behaviour change is unethical due to structural limitations? What might be the results of this increased pressure for individual action sources such as the internet on health equity?

Parenting is only one example of health information overload in entertainment education, youtube videos, health blogs, and numerous sources throughout the internet. Here is an example of one such health resource on the internet meant to provide parents with up-to-date health information from WebMD:

http://www.multivu.com/mnr/54138-webmd-baby-app-iphone-ipod

Beyond the world of parenting, the number of health blogs about healthy nutrition, exercise programs, tropical health retreats and countless other health topics appear to be increasing exponentially. What kind of pressure does this put on persons to not only be active in this internet world of health advice, but also to act upon this advice via trips to Whole Foods, gym memberships, and special BPA-free water bottles?

This article discusses “parenting guilt” as a result of the information overload parents face. While “parenting guilt” has been more and more evident to me in the last few years, so too has the “health guilt” brought on by the growth of health blogs.

Check out this scattering of health blogs with growing numbers of followers:

http://kriscarr.com/

http://greatist.com/health/must-read-health-fitness-blogs-2012

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