Parental Decisions On Vaccines Swayed By Social Media

Social media is so rife with misinformation regarding childhood vaccinations, healthcare professionals need to be prepared to provide adequate information and support parents to ensure informed decision-making, a new study has found.

Led by nursing and midwifery researcher Dr Susan Smith from Flinders University's College of Nursing and Health Sciences, the study looked at the significant role social media plays in shaping parents' perceptions and choices regarding childhood vaccinations.

"Parents are increasingly turning to social media for health-related information and while it can provide access to valuable and supportive material, it can also amplify vaccine hesitancy due to the spread of misinformation," says Dr Smith, also a former maternal child health nurse.

"As vaccine hesitancy continues to rise in high-income countries, including Australia, we need to ensure a coordinated effort to enhance the quality of information available to parents online."

Study lead author Dr Susan Smith in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

The study looked at an online community on Facebook, created specifically for the research, that encouraged open discussions on vaccine choices in pregnancy and parenting.

Over a year of data collection, three main themes emerged: vaccine safety concerns, the emotional debate, and issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccine mandates.

"We found that parents who actively engage in online communities are often exposed to a wide range of opinions, which can either reinforce their decision to vaccinate or increase their hesitancy," says Dr Smith.

"Misinformation was high, including incorrect information around vaccine ingredients and side effects, which was shared alongside fear-mongering memes and conspiracy theories against the necessity for childhood vaccinations."

The research also explored the emotional impact of social media on parents, with arguments from both sides of the fence contributing to parental hesitancy.

"An unexpected aspect of our research was the degree of aggression and vitriol that vaccine-hesitant parents were exposed to on the Facebook page, which had the potential to cause fear and anxiety in the undecided," says Dr Smith.

"Proponents of vaccination tended to ridicule, rather than encourage a healthy discussion that may have in fact helped a parent to understand the benefits of immunisation.

"If we are to help people make informed choices, we must create more supportive online environments where parents can access accurate information and feel reassured about their choices."

The authors say the research underscores the complex nature of vaccine decision-making and the influential role of social media and calls for healthcare professionals to join in the fray to help parents.

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