Parenting in a Pandemic: A Data-Driven Exploration
By Corinne Kleinman and Adwoa Brako.
As America shut down businesses and many converted to the work-from-home Zoom conference routine, parents struggled to adjust to balancing their new homeschooling lives while completing their own work.
Both Twitter and Reddit were full of posts about parenting suggestions, stress and anxiety over marriages and education, and many, many funny photos of pets and children.
A Data-Driven Study
By examining thousands of these conversations and threads, we wanted to first and foremost understand how parents are dealing with COVID and what discussions they are having about the challenges of a quarantined world. Second, as the world gravitates increasingly online during COVID-19, we aimed to explore the similarities and differences in the quality, length, and types of conversations that Twitter and Reddit foster.
How have parents been handling quarantine and COVID-19?
Across the board, parents share tips and advice; worries about mental health, anxiety, and stress; legal issues when it comes to co-parenting and custody debates; and productivity; balancing home and work life.
The graph above shows the concentration of conversations of parents on Twitter and Reddit. Connecting edges between nodes are created via text similarity and use of similar keywords. Across all conversations, the topic of Parenting “Tips” (green) overlaps with every other topic, illustrating the positive communities that have formed around these online conversations.
The largest cluster on the left focused on communication, mental and physical health, activities to keep kids busy at home, and legal advice for parents. Based on word overlap between each post, it appears that these topics share common themes, distinct from productivity, which emerged as an entirely separate cluster. Across both clusters, the sheer amount of green nodes intermingled with the others visualizes the number of helpful suggestions across every topic that parents have posted regarding parenting during the pandemic.
To further illustrate these conversations, here are a sample of the kinds of posts we analyzed from Reddit and Twitter.
“[The] only things I can do to pass time are reddit or watching tv which are just brain numbing.” — Reddit
“…we #stayathome the past week with the whole family #quaratinelife #covidー19 . honestly though it would be much worse and the kids would drive us crazy. not so. for now. #quarantineactivities 5000 piece puzzle. bike building and chess😲 have been fun. 2 more to go. #lockdown” — Twitter
“…but mostly in fits of rage when I get so tired of not being able to hear my own thoughts and I have to go out in the yard to keep from hurting someone.” — Reddit
“if this continues, I am going to go back to court and have your child support payments increased so i can pay for more childcare and home help services.” — Reddit
“my lawyer told me to keep track so when this is all over, we can talk about who the “parent” is and the hours he is actually doing it.” — Reddit
“Whoever says they are productive or this is a great chance to pick up skills either is lying / making it up ( don’t believe social media or “influencer” posts).” — Reddit
“you don’t even need statistics. we all work or have worked here. we know that after a certain threshold our productivity is just. not the same. after i come back from break at work 4 or 5 hours into my shift i kid you not i work probably at 1/2–3/4th my normal speed.” — Twitter
“personal time because schools and daycares centers close. and a lot of contract and blue-collar workers do not get paid leave at all for snow days. they take pto. or miss out on wages. people who work from home get their productivity cut by kids being home” — Twitter
“i can’t focus enough to meet two deadlines a week anymore.” — Reddit
Discussion of Topics on Twitter and Reddit
Certain topics, such as health, productivity, tips & recommendations, and legal issues were mentioned extensively on both platforms while other topics, such as mental health and finance, were discussed more exclusively either Reddit or Twitter.
Conversations regarding all of these topics revolved around the uncertainties of how long quarantine would go on, how a lack of social interaction takes a toll on mental health, the consumption of ‘comfort’ food to ease the situation and uncertainty on how to deal with their children, who find it difficult to cope with lifestyle changes brought on by COVID. Thirteen (13) topics were discussed overall in the conversations on Reddit and Twitter and the bar chart below gives an overview of the topics analyzed.
Regarding productivity generally, most parents shared frustrations on their inability to utilize work hours due to their children (as well as their pets’) needs. Within the sample of parents discussing productivity, few were able to stay productive unless their partner or a relative was at home to take care of the children. And even among those with a significant other at home, many complained that they could not do work because their partner was either distracting or did not have work themselves, thus leading to an inability to do work remotely.
As part of the conversations regarding productivity, parents discussed learning for children and its effectiveness. Some parents had discussions on discontinuing e-learning for their children, considering how children have been affected by lack of social interaction and are unable to focus on school work.
Productivity was discussed differently on each platform. While Twitter conversations mostly featured humor — sharing pictures and making light of the new frustrations of balancing life during the pandemic, the conversations on Reddit were more centered on parental concerns or venting about work-from-home challenges. We found that there were more conversations on work-from-home productivity than e-learning for children on Reddit. Contributing factors to this finding may include the age group of Reddit, many of whom do not yet have children, as well as the threads we gathered for this analysis.
Perhaps one of the biggest topics that parents voiced concerns about, yet does not get the coverage needed, is mental health. Twitter showed variety in the subtopics of the mental health conversation, indicating that the platform may be a strong one for users to discuss the mental health challenges they are facing.
Parents also used these platforms to express the difficulties of co-parenting during the pandemic. While some co-parents are able to agree and compromise on taking precautionary measures to protect themselves and their kids, other co-parents could not agree on how to make adjustments in their lifestyles to spend more time with their children, who were now at home everyday. As a result of this, some users discussed their experiences resolving these differences legally.
Within these threads, many legal offices offered legal advice or links to their pages with legal updates during the pandemic to help struggling parents. Many legal offices posted messages similar to:
“Cafcass has put together some guidance to support children and families as the situation surrounding COVID-19 develops”
— Hawkins Family Law on Twitter
On both Reddit and Twitter, we observed users mentioning “communication” the most frequently out of all subtopics related to coparenting. Following “communication,” “legal tips,” “advice,” “agreement and compromise,” and “finance” were the next most frequently mentioned subtopics.
Dealing With Home Emergencies
Educating kids on how to deal with an emergency at home was an interesting topic that emerged (from both Twitter and Reddit). With all the uncertainty surrounding COVID, many parents discussed teaching their children what to do in the case of an emergency. Some parents shared how they taught their kids to dial 911 or call a neighbor if they noticed any signs of COVID-19 in whoever they’re home alone with (perhaps grandparents or even siblings). Furthermore on Twitter, parents often worried about how to discuss the pandemic with their children, especially so they would be able to act appropriately and swiftly in case of an emergency whether that be a personal emergency or one or both parents come down with symptoms of COVID.
Positive Support All Around
Although the past few months have been challenging for everyone, it was refreshing to observe in our data that people take time to spread love, care and encouragement, as well as share tips and recommendations on how to make these difficult times more manageable. The bar chart above shows just how often people shared tips and recommendations (on both platforms) in an effort to provide comfort and support to others.
How do conversations by parents differ by platform?
By the very nature of their platforms, Twitter and Reddit offer different forms of communication. Twitter is a platform that is not designed for long chains of communication, with a 280 character limit — it is meant to encourage short bursts of thought. While there are comments, replies, and retweets, the site is not formatted so users are easily able to see and read other users’ reposts and discussions, and conversations were therefore more often subject to humorous thoughts and short quips. Reddit, on the other hand, is much easier as a platform to express long stories and share feedback through easily navigable threads. In the case of parenting during COVID, this meant that users were able to express more nuanced concerns, discuss difficult topics and affirm one another’s experience with a part of their lives such as dealing with work/life balance while taking care of their children.
These sometimes humorous, sometimes frustrated, sometimes anxious social media posts and threads from parents to Twitter and Reddit illustrate that parents across the country are experiencing many of the same challenges as one another, from work/life balance to virtual education programs to coparenting and legal struggles. Since the day-to-day of quarantine life may not be significantly changing anytime soon, it is critical to learn from these conversations — in particular regarding coverage of mental health, anxiety, co-parenting and legal issues.
Whether parents were concerned for their children’s mental health being — sequestered from their friends and social life — or their own well-being — balancing child-care and work while struggling to keep in contact with friends — beginning a national dialogue regarding a topic as complicated as parental and children’s mental health during quarantine will undoubtedly help improve the home lives of many in the US and across the world.