As the pandemic settled in, Ciera Kirkpatrick was a new mom working on her doctorate, a double challenge added to the already tall order of first-time motherhood.
Kirkpatrick reflected her experience in her dissertation, studying how social media depictions of motherhood can affect how women perceive their own experience. It informs her broader interest in how media messages influence people’s health-related decisions.
Kirkpatrick’s research exposed 464 new mothers to 20 Instagram posts from the accounts of “mommy influencers” and “everyday mothers.” Half idealized motherhood — clean house, mom in makeup, happy kids — and half presented more authentic depictions.
Exposure to the idealized portrayals, whether from actual influencers or regular moms, increased envy and anxiety in the group, said Kirkpatrick, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations.
She could relate.
“I have personally noticed many instances in which I have compared myself to portrayals of motherhood on social media and have had negative effects from it,” she said. She even found herself posting idealized depictions of her own life. She also tries to keep it real with other posts “to showcase the difficulties and challenges too because … I know showing the hardships can help make other moms feel less alone in what they are experiencing and feeling.”
Kirkpatrick studies how media messaging affects individuals’ mental and physical health, and how strategic communicators can design messages to improve health outcomes by promoting healthy behaviors and discouraging unhealthy behaviors. The pandemic has offered a unique opportunity for this research as people react to messages about everything from masking to vaccinations from social media, friends, family and medical experts.
In some cases, she found, peers can deliver a message more effectively than experts. Her research aimed at increasing enrollment of minority populations in clinical trials found that people were more receptive to hearing from other people of color who had participated in trials than from doctors.
Designing health messaging strategically — depending on the specific audience and goal of the messaging — is key to helping people navigate myriad decisions, Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick won the university’s 2021 Faculty Research and Creative Activity Slam with her talk, “Mass Media’s Effects on Health and How Strategic Communication Can Aid in Achieving Health Equity.” Her research, and more, was featured in the 2021-2022 University of Nebraska–Lincoln Research Report, now available online.