Monday, December 6, 2010

Memes and Parental Misinformation

Misinformation bugs me.  But there is a particular kind of misinformation that really bugs me, and that is the viral chain-email 'warnings'.  You know the ones?  They go something like 'Warning: Eating Apples Causes Breast Cancer!  My mother ate apples and she died of breast cancer.  Stop eating apples before it's too late.  Pass this on to every woman you know!!!!'

No matter how many times I tell people that I do not want them to forward me this kind of rubbish without at least doing a cursory Google to see if it's complete bullsh*t, there are a few friends who persist.  If someone ignores my polite emails telling them not to clutter up my inbox with such crap, I hit 'reply all' and post an email back to all their friends with information about why it's a hoax, which usually annoys or embarrasses them enough to stop them sending similar crap to me in the future.  It particularly annoys me because sometimes the information is actually harmful - like one that gave inaccurate advice about what to do in a stroke.

The name for a piece of information (or misinformation) that spreads around the internet (or the real world community, for that matter) is a meme, pronounced to rhyme with 'dream'.  The word was coined by popular evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene.  The idea basically is that you can understand the spread of cultural ideas by thinking of memes a bit like genes - the ones that survive and spread are those that can encourage their hosts to replicate them.  Memes on facebook seem to be most effective in the form of replicating status updates.

I don't dislike all memes.  Some are great.  For example:
WARNING, PLEASE READ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. If someone comes to your front door and asks you to remove your clothes and dance with your arms in the air, DO NOT do this, it is a scam, they just want to see you naked. Please copy and paste this to your status, I wish I had received this yesterday, I feel stupid now.....
Recently, one went round like this (or similar):
Change your profile picture to one of your favorite childhood cartoon characters and ask your friends to do the same. The point of the game? To have no human faces on Facebook only childhood memories by Monday to fight child abuse. Copy and paste to spread the word
I couldn't really see how it would fight child abuse, but as I don't mind being associated with the cause, and I couldn't resist the chance to change my profile pic to Astroboy shooting fire out of his butt, I changed my profile pic.

I saw that lots of my friends did the same.  It was a good quality meme.  It was fun, easy to replicate, and got over the can't-be-arsed factor with the appeal to our urge to protect children.

I was thoroughly enjoying finding out everyone's childhood cartoon characters when suddenly everyone started changing their profile pics back.  What was going on?  Then I saw a friend had the status:
ATTENTION: the group asking everyone to change their profile picture to a cartoon character is actually a group of pedophiles. There doing it because kids wil accept their friend request faster if they see a cartoon picture. It has nothing to do with any Child charities. IT'S ON TONIGHTS NEWS. Copy & Paste this on your status - Let everyone know. Change ur pic back to what it was ASAP!!
Not only did this completely ruin my fun, but it's also one of those memes that I hate.  I was not at all surprised that a quick Google search confirms this is a hoax, because it has all the trademarks of misinformation - the panicky tone, the vague reference to an authoritative source (which news where?), not to mention the failure to spell 'there' correctly.  But boy was it replicating fast.  And not only replicating, but acting as a predator meme, killing off the original fun meme.

So that made me wonder - could I create a meme that would kill the hoax meme?  Out of curiousity, I thought I would give it a shot.  This is what I came up with:
ATTENTION!! No one knows who started the cartoon profile pic campaign against violence idea. No news source has reported it was pedophiles. It was harmless fun. Repost this if you don't repeat every bit of hysterical rubbish you read on the internet, then change your profile pic to whatever the fuck you like.
I posted it to my status, then for a bit of added oomph, I sent messages to some of the friends I thought would be most likely to transmit the meme and asked them if they would kindly post it as their status update, removing the swearing if they preferred.  (A few of them have.  Thank you to everyone who did!)  I'm very curious to see if it will work.  I guess I might never know, but I will take it as a success if I see the meme come back from a friend who I didn't send it to in the first place.  I have been enjoying that the friends who have reposted it seem to get other friends 'liking' their status.

I have also seen some friends resisting both the hoax and original cartoon pic meme with status updates like the following:
what's with all the do "blah blah" with profile pic/wall to raise awareness/help a cause on FB? If you really care donate, contact your local MP, volunteer. Don't be an armchair activist.
As a competing meme, this is probably entirely too sensible to really take off.  It asks people to make an effort, which is a problematic quality in a meme.  Anyway, it's not my cup of tea, because I feel I can enjoy passing on silly memes, that I think 'armchair awareness-raising' memes can have value by influencing the hegemonic discourse (ok, I admit it, I did an Arts degree), and repeating the memes does not stop me from donating to good causes as well.

Anyhoo, as interesting as this all may be, why am I writing about this on a blog about parenting?

Because it has occurred to me that all the baseless information that floats around in the community about parenting is a result of successful memes.  It is a good environment for memes because it is easy to push a parent's buttons (preying on the protectiveness and anxiety we all feel for our children), and parents are sleep-deprived, time poor, and often socially isolated - meaning they have a reduced ability to verify information themselves.  What also does not help is that health professionals also pass on baseless memes.  Who, for example, was told by a midwife or health nurse that the whitish/bluish tinge around your baby's mouth means they have wind?  If you can find me any evidence that this is the case you will blow me away.  (My theory on why it sometimes anecdotally seems to be true is that babies are most often windy after a feed when the skin round their mouth has been pushed back in order to suck a boob/bottle, which has compressed the skin and made it seem whitish/bluish).

It is particularly damaging when a health professional passes on a baseless meme, because it then carries the weight of 'authority', which improves its chances of replication.  This behaviour also reduces the effectiveness of accurate memes by reducing everyone's ability to easily distinguish between accurate and inaccurate memes.  It lowers the quality of all parenting information.

Sometimes an inaccurate meme is passed on deliberately by authorities in an effort to fool parents (who are perceived to be stupid) into adopting better behaviour.  This seems to have been the case with respect to the idea that solids have to be delayed until 6 months.  This meme seems to have started to counteract a meme that was propagated by the bottle-feeding industry that solids had to be introduced before 6 months for the health of your baby / to get them to sleep etc.  The 'delay till 6 months' meme not only encourages breastfeeding for longer (which seems to be good), but also stops overkeen parents introducing solids before 4 months, where the evidence suggests most babies' guts are not ready - so it is perceived to improve public health outcomes (for more on this, see my post on solids).

There's nothing wrong with delaying solids until 6 months, but I have a problem with medical professionals passing on a meme that says you have to.  Why?  Because of the effect it has on parental trust in health professionals generally (once parents learn it's not true, they become less willing to follow accurate advice because they are skeptical it will be accurate), because of the effect it has on health professionals (encouraging them to see parents as gullible 'sheep' instead of people to empower), and because of the effect that all the conflicting information has on a parent's mental health (encouraging feelings of helplessness and inadequacy).

So what can we do to combat poor quality parenting memes?  This is a bit soapboxy, but its kind of the point of my blog:

Firstly, when anyone (including a health professional) gives you parenting advice, ask to know the source of their information.  And if they tell you there's a risk, ask them to quantify it.  If they are patronising in response, give them just a few examples of the conflicting advice you have received from health professionals.   Expect and demand that governments treat parents as intelligent people, and fairly put forward the evidence behind their recommendations.

And secondly, if you repeat advice that worked for you, acknowledge its source or lack thereof and acknowledge that you don't know if it will work for everyone.  Be suspicious of any advice supported only by anecdotes.  This includes if your advice is an Extremely Important Warning, because if your warning is utter bollocks, you are at best cluttering our minds up with rubbish and stressing everyone out unnecessarily, and at worst you may be encouraging people not to do something which is actually beneficial.

1 comment:

  1. See this interesting. I have found as a health professional, that a lot of things I do or recommend aren't necessarily based on a great amount of evidence. Sometimes the best evidence doesn't fit the situation and more often the case, there actually isn't a lot of good information. I also think parents are much better off being given choices, sometimes they are better off following their gut instinct than the best evidence anyway. Actually I think parents are much better off developing their instinct than even knowing what 5 million studies say.
    As you found, there isn't a great deal of relevant evidence in regards to starting solids. I always tell parents who ask 6 months because my interpretation of the best evidence says that, certainly not because I think people are so stupid that they'll start earlier that the cut off I give them although I have heard that reason before. You've seen it differently, which is fine but you can see how it isn't always as clear cut. That's not to say I demonise parents who want to start earlier though either.
    As a mother I used to get all caught up with what the evidence was but I have found that there is so much conflicting evidence and so many vested interests. So now I go 99% on gut. It's worked well for me so far and is backed up by common sense which seems to go out the window a bit with parenting, parents just don't seem to trust themselves. I wonder if it goes back to losing our 'village'. Anyway, I could ponder on that for a paragraph or seven but I won't :P

    The facebook meme thing, well you know it just annoys me :P