Nivedita Sharma (name changed on request), a 28-year-old art teacher and an aspiring writer from Delhi, is a self-confessed “internet junkie”. After the pandemic struck in 2020 and her classes moved online, she, like many other women, started spending more time in the virtual world (specifically google) — at least 13-14 hours a day.
“I spent most of my time in 2020 in front of my laptop,” Sharma tells Happiest Health. “It involved my work — giving art classes to children between eight and 15 years old. I was also writing my novel; it is still in its nascent stage. The rest of the time I browsed news and social-media sites for my daily dose of information and entertainment.”
In between web scrolling, she fell in love and got married the same year. “Things happened fast in my life — like the speed of my internet connection,” she says with a smile.
But her pregnancy in late 2020 was followed by a lull. Sharma says her gynaecologist rebuked her for her “obsession to google” about every aspect of pregnancy and childbirth. “It is not healthy,” the doctor told her.
So, Sharma kept her laptop locked in the cupboard after her classes. Instead, she read a couple of books on her bucket list, including her current favourite, Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.
Pregnant women and the Google world
Dr Preeti Prabhakar Shetty, senior consultant, obstetrics and gynaecology, Apollo Hospitals, Bengaluru, tells Happiest Health that the internet had become unavoidable in our daily life. “The moms-to-be are no different — especially if they are educated and have access to it,” Dr Shetty says.
“They find the internet to be a medium to clarify their doubts and navigate through pregnancy-related decisions. The internet is a treasure trove of information and pregnancy is a time when women are anxious and have many questions. Some of them seek information on the internet as it is available 24×7.”
Dr N Sapna Lulla, lead consultant, obstetrics and gynaecology, Aster CMI Hospital, Bengaluru agreed. “Yes, an increasing number of pregnant women read, watch and listen to information on pregnancy, childbirth and childcare online,” she says. “The commonness and demand for health-related information online depends on education and accessibility to information.”
Research works have also proved the growing dependence on online information among expectant mothers.
An October 2021 study, ‘Internet use by pregnant women seeking childbirth information,’ published in the Journal of Gynecology Obstetrics and Human Reproduction said that “pregnant women obtain information from the internet more than health professionals.”
The research project found that pregnant women use the internet as a primary source of information about childbirth. “Most pregnant women think that the information they got from the internet is partially useful and reliable,” said the study, which was conducted by Pınar Serçekuş, Büşra Değirmenciler and Sevgi Özkan — members of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Pamukkale University, Denizli, Turkey.
Some of the key findings of the study, which collected data from 162 pregnant women using an information form, were:
- At least 92.4 per cent of women used the internet as a source of information for childbirth
- Blogs or web pages were the most frequently used internet sources (85.8 per cent), followed by mobile applications (75.6 per cent) and social media (58.1 per cent)
- Most of the women found the information on the internet partially useful and reliable
- At least 24.3 per cent of the women said that receiving information on the internet decreased their fears and 14.8 per cent women admitted that it increased their fears.
The research was an attempt to understand the mediums available for women to get health information during their life’s most crucial period. The study said that “receiving information during this period affects the birth and postpartum period.”
How pregnant women use online information
A 2016 study, ‘Internet use by pregnant women seeking pregnancy-related information: a systematic review,’ investigated the ways in which “pregnant women used the internet to get pregnancy-related information.” It was published in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth.
The study was done by Padaphet Sayakhot and Mary Carolan-Olah from the College of Health and Biomedicine, Victoria University, Australia. It relied on data provided by seven publications. The sample size ranged from 182 to 1,347 pregnant women. “The majority of publications reported that the participants used the internet as a source of information about pregnancy,” said Sayakhot and Carolan-Olah. “Most women went online for information at least once a month.”
Popular Google topics among pregnant women
The most searched topics online were fetal development and nutrition among the expectant mothers, the study found. As expected, it indicated that women with higher education were three times more likely to seek advice than those with less than a high-school education.
“Moreover, single and multiparous women (those who had at least one previous birth) were less likely to seek advice than married and nulliparous women (those who have not given birth to a child),” it said. “The majority of women found health information on the internet to be reliable and useful.”
‘Pregnancy and health in the age of the Internet: A content analysis of online “birth club” forums,’ a 2020 study published on PLOS (a research publication platform) analyzed what expectant mothers usually look for online.
The popular subjects were maternal health (45 per cent), baby-related topics (29 per cent) and people/relationships (10 per cent). “While pain was a popular topic all throughout pregnancy, individual topics that were dominant by trimester included miscarriage (first trimester), labour (third trimester) and baby sleeping routine (postpartum period),” said the University of Pennsylvania study.
How much of online information is reliable?
But several doctors have raised concerns about the growing phenomenon of “googling” on health and wellness. Pune-based senior gynaecologist and obstetrician Rupali Chowdhury (name changed on request) says “most of my patients are themselves physicians.”
“These days, everyone is an expert thanks to Google,” she told Happiest Health. “I have nothing against pregnant women consuming health information online. My question is do they know whether the information is accurate or not.”
It goes without saying that some sources are better than others. The study by Turkey’s Pamukkale University at least comes with a statutory warning: “Online information about childbirth may lead to increased fear of childbirth.” It carries another good suggestion: “Health professionals should orient people about reliable sources.”
Sayakhot and Carolan-Olah from the College of Health and Biomedicine, Victoria University said that “future research is needed to address the issue of potentially unreliable information” on the internet being consumed by women.
“Most women did not discuss the information they get from the internet with their health providers,” wrote Sayakhot and Carolan-Olah. “Thus, health providers may not be aware of potentially inaccurate information or mistaken beliefs about pregnancy available on the internet.”
The genuine concern of misinformation becoming a public-health issue has been raised by the study done by the University of Pennsylvania in the US. “More than just emotional or peer support, pregnant women turn to online forums to discuss their health,” it said. “Dominant topics, such as labour and miscarriage, suggest unmet informational needs in these domains. With misinformation becoming a growing public health concern, more attention must be directed toward peer-exchange outlets.”
Dr Shetty stressed that without guidance any information on the internet can be confusing and harmful. “The meta-analyses of health websites evaluations have shown that quality of information on the internet has been a problem,” she says.
“There can be potentially inaccurate information and mistaken beliefs about pregnancy which are being reported on the sites. It is not wrong to seek information, but it is necessary that whatever information is consumed by the woman gathered from the internet must be discussed with her medical experts. It is only with guidance that it can be figured out if the information is correct or misleading.”
Dr Lulla says that clinicians prioritize their clients, but the internet gives them blanket treatment. “I often tell them to listen to their bodies,” she says. “Their little ones (foetuses) speak to them through the changes in their bodies, which is their own way of guiding. Last but not the least, I also tell them not to test my knowledge with their internet knowledge.”
Internet means access to information
As per latest data, at least 4.66 billion people worldwide — about 60 per cent of the global population — are active internet users. According to figures available with data platform statista, China, India and the US topped the list in terms of internet users. “China has more than 854 million internet users and India has approximately 560 million online users,” said statista.
“Both countries still have large parts of the population that are offline. The internet penetration rate in India went up to around 45 per cent in 2021, from about four per cent in 2007. Although these figures seem low, it meant that half of the population of 1.37 billion people had access to the internet that year. This also ranked the country second in the world in terms of active internet users.”
Online clubs of expecting mothers
Along with scrolling, gathering and reading information on the internet, moms-to-be also share, listen and care for each other as part of innumerable online communities and forums. Websites like whattoexpect.com, mothertobaby.org, evidencebasedbirth.com, babycenter.com and pullingcurls.com have millions of followers.
Most of these websites are initiatives run and guided by gynaecologists, obstetricians and nurses. In fact, some of them conduct online courses on prenatal classes for parents-to-be on labour and delivery.
Take for instance thebump.com. Some of the top-read articles on the website are about pregnancy fears, signs of ovulation, best pregnancy tests, early signs of pregnancy, pregnancy announcement ideas, gender reveal ideas, hospital bag checklist, baby rashes and baby finger foods.
These websites have an answer for everything — from baby names to “am I pregnant”, from the best crib to Covid-19 resource centres. In the crucial period of three trimesters and three months postpartum, experts say, a woman has question galore and needs someone to stand by her side to help her navigate through her physical and emotional necessities.
Messages like “I have nausea, mild bloating, and I’m absolutely exhausted” and “this is my first baby and I’m wondering what products I should stock up on before baby for my postpartum care and recovery at home! Thanks” are to be found in the online clubs of expecting mothers. While many post their queries and answers while remaining anonymous, some are comfortable sharing their private details without self-censorship.
Meanwhile in Delhi, art teacher Nivedita Sharma often ends up watching nursery-rhyme videos online to calm her crying nine-month-old infant these days. At times, she googles to look for the best car seat or crib for her son. “Now, I do try to verify before trusting each and every information online,” says Sharma, admitting to a change in attitude since her post-pregnancy learning phase.