Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Why "it neva dun me no 'arm" is my least favourite phrase...

And so for my first post, and the incident which prompted me to begin blogging!

In my introductory post, I mentioned that parenting websites are one topic which I have rambled and ranted about lately. There are many, many such websites around - some of which are attached to recognised brands of baby products, some which exist in their own right as an online community for parents, and one in particular which stands out because it is the brand which virtually all UK-based expectant parents come into contact with via sample packs of advertising leaflets and miniature tester versions of x, y and z product that you will clearly NEED if you're going to be a half-decent parent. (and breathe)

Now, I'm no legal expert whatsoever but to err on the side of caution I'm going to refrain from identifying any of these companies by name. I'm very certain that if you have children you will know to whom I refer anyway.

I read an interesting article this morning from The Western Australian, citing a recent study which found that eight out of ten parents (specifically mothers) are more likely to seek parenting advice online than to consult their own mothers. That's quite an astonishing figure to me, although I'm yet to locate the survey behind the article and subject it to my usual rigorous analysis of its sample of participants, method of data collection and so on, so forth in order to establish its reliability. Anecdotally, however, I can see that there's some merit to this claim. I personally am a member of (counting... could take some time) three separate online parenting communities and post on each far more regularly than I'm prepared to admit even here. And this practice is not uncommon; many of my online 'friends' have multiple memberships to different forums and use each one for a variety of reasons. When I want to research something new - a most recent example being my intention to have a home birth - rather than first approach my Real Life peers, I turn to Google, or Facebook or one of the parenting discussion forums. At my fingertips is a world of instant advice and information! Magical! Or is it...

What happens when you have a gigantic, international community of everyday Joes, like myself, sharing their Opinions and non-expertise? For the most part, nothing sinister happens. Rather like a virtual form of the school gates, people get together and chat about their experience of x or their opinion on y or how z has utterly outraged them. Every now and then, however, this takes a slightly less harmless turn and we start to see the ugly side to freedom of speech.

In recent years, I have seen this manifest in secretive games encouraging women to post enigmatic statuses that allegedly raise breast cancer awareness, vigilante 'justice' accusations of child molesters signing up for Facebook accounts simply to groom your teenage children, viral scams that ask members to repost a link to a non-existant gift card or voucher for a popular supermarket, and the ever present viral Facebook updates citing inflammatory (and untrue) statements about the UK immigration policy.

Is there a line between freedom of speech and having a licence to talk rubbish? With great power comes great responsibility - and can you think of a greater power than having the absolute, unequivocal right to say whatever you please in a medium which can be shared globally and immortalised on screen forever?

Let's return to the issue of parenting websites and see how this conundrum applies there. This weekend, a number of threads appeared on a sub-forum of a particular parenting website relating to certain actions by mothers who were unsure of how to deal with certain problems. One particular mother wrote that because her 9 week-old son had been so unsettled at night, she had taken to adding a spoonful of baby rice to his bottle, and she wished to know if anyone thought she was wrong for doing so. An absolute immediate answer is that yes, it is very unsafe to add anything to a baby's bottle at any age, in this instance particularly unwise as the baby is much younger than the current Department of Health recommended age for introducing solid food (see HERE for the detailed guidelines).

One might quite reasonably suppose that the other mothers in the forum immediately informed this lady that her decision was very much not in line with the safety guidelines for introducing solid food and she ought not to continue. Not So. What unfolded instead was a 20-page thread with an alarming number of parents agreeing with her decision and quoting their own experiences (or those of their neighbour's auntie's friend's cousin's sister) of doing a similar thing, complete with the disclaimer "it never did me any harm". The members who did chip in with stern reminders of the guidelines and explanations of the evidence behind them were responded to with considerable hostility - comments calling them "self-righteous", "judgmental" and the classic "well aren't you the perfect mum". Meanwhile, the owners of the forum and the team of moderators responsible for monitoring the activities of the users said nothing, their silence speaking volumes.

Logically, what could be done? There is no rhyme or reason - moreover, no moral justification for censoring these forums and removing comments from people whose opinions are not in line with the guidelines for safe parenting. Even if that had been the course of action taken by the forum moderators, what could it realistically have achieved? When you censor undesirable comments, you don't obliterate the rationale behind them. It merely forces the practice underground, turning it into a dirty little secret that people will still do, but will fail to talk about. That is infinitely more dangerous.

As it turns out, the voices of those emphasising the importance of observing the DoH guidelines about weaning were eventually heard, and the mother later reported that she had abandoned the baby rice and instead bought a different type of formula, which thankfully had resolved her concerns about her baby. In this instance, the perseverance of a few well-informed forum users had prevented a potentially dangerous behaviour from being repeated. But why is this responsibility falling to the other members of the forums in the first place? Why and how could a website exist, promoting itself with tag lines such as "Get real, honest advice in our online community..." then fail to ensure that the content of said community is both safe and accurate - particularly when this same company deliberately targets new and expectant mothers through the hospitals, thus creating an illusion of NHS and government endorsement? 

Thankfully I am not alone in raising my eyebrow at these events, and several other parents who have witnessed similar goings-on as members of this particular website have expressed their annoyance at the company's lack of effort to promote safe, evidence-based recommendations for infant care. Between us, we have drafted a letter to be sent to the company's management, in the hope that they will take a more responsible approach to the running of their website and ensure that all parents who access it for advice are encouraged to take heed of the guidelines and discuss any issues with health care professional, not blindly take the stories of strangers online as solid advice.

This is a draft of the letter. I doubt it's the final version as it still needs some tweaking and trimming down (being concise is not my forté *ahem*). I'm not sure that we'll revolutionise online parenting communities, or even this particular one. It would be an immense relief to know that our concerns have been taken on board by the organisation in question. I hope to post an update to that effect very soon. 

For the purpose of avoiding any legal issues, I have replaced the name of the website with *****. Y'know... just to be on the safe side! 

"To whom it may concern,
RE: Disregard of FSIDS guidelines on ****** forums

Following events on the *****.com internet discussion forums, we as mothers and users of the ****** forums feel it imperative to draw your attention to certain actions and recommendations reported by the users of the '0-3 months baby' forum. 

As it is common practice (and the purpose of the forum) for users to discuss their own parenting methods, and ask for advice and support, we were alarmed to see discussions around practices which frequently seem to deviate from government guidelines regarding issues such as introduction of solid foods and FSIDS recommendations to keep a sleeping baby in the same room as the parents until they reach six months of age. Whilst it is obviously not possible or advised for *****'s moderators to censor the forums and restrict users from discussing behaviour that goes against the guidelines, our concern is that their actions are being passed to new and vulnerable parents as the widely accepted way to care for a new baby.

There is currently nothing on the ****** forum that draws attention to the advised practices to ensure the health and well-being of infants and the few users who do attempt to promote the guidelines are very often dismissed as being "self-righteous" or "judgmental", with again no input from ****** to direct parents to reputable sources of information about safe parenting practices.

As the vast majority of mothers are given packs of leaflets and samples by ****** either by their midwives or in the hospital labour wards, this creates the impression that the government and NHS endorses the ****** brand and its associated website. This is reinforced by the inclusion of the Child Benefit application forms in the ***** pack given to mothers once their baby has been born, which many parents appear to believe is the only way to obtain the forms. One would anticipate, therefore, that the government would wish to ensure that any company to whom it has lent credibility would promote safe parenting practices and strive to ensure that all parents are aware of safety guidelines, especially those who use the discussion forums and are most likely to voice any concerns or doubts they have about their parenting decisions.

The lack of action by ****** staff could be construed as tacit acceptance of their website being used to pass on advice which is known to increase risks of cot death and health complications in babies. We refer you specifically to threads in the "0-3 months baby" forum whereby a mother discussed feeding baby rice to her 9 week old son in his bottle, and though some members directed her to evidence demonstrating why this was unadvised, many users encouraged her behaviour and became hostile. There was no action by ****** staff whatsoever to encourage the mother to speak to a healthcare professional or even to direct her to read the guidelines on introducing solid food to babies. As you are aware, the Department of Health currently advises that solid food should be introduced around the middle of the first year, and not before 17 weeks unless in consultation with a healthcare professional.

Similarly, discussions about where babies ought to sleep have often contained explicit references to ignoring the FSIDS advice to keep a baby in the same room as the parents; not only did ****** staff again fail to step in and refer parents to the guidelines, but the thread containing posts from other members attempting to do that was deleted, and thus a wealth of potentially life-saving information was removed.

We feel strongly that ******, as a powerful and well recognised brand, have a duty to inform parents about the FSIDS sleeping guidelines, the recommendations for introducing solid food to babies and other critical advice intended to protect infants from harm. They should ensure that the information contained within the forum is both safe and accurate. At the very least, the discussion forums on the ****** website should contain a warning that none of the advice received from other parents should replace the government's guidelines or the advice of a medical professional.

We request such a notice to be placed on each forum page of the website in such a manner that all users' attention will be drawn to it. Furthermore we request that the moderators of the forums take ownership of the content and ensure that, although parents may freely discuss their own practices, these are complemented by ******'s support of the guidelines for the safest practice as relevant to the topic being discussed. We expect this to be implemented by the moderators taking it under their remit to identify threads relating to contentious issues and post messages that draw attention to the evidence-based recommendations and to remind users that comments posted by other parents should not replace these guidelines or the advice of healthcare professionals."

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