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Nearly all of what developmentalists know about parenting in the U.S. comes from survey or observational data. Recently, social scientists in other disciplines have turned to “big data” from social media to learn about people’s attitudes and behavior in a variety of domains. On social media, large numbers of people share information about naturally-occurring beliefs and behavior. Investigating parenting from social media, therefore, could offer a new avenue for developmentalists to track parenting beliefs and practices on important parenting topics.
The present study draws data from Twitter to investigate what people interested in parenting believe about breastfeeding. It uses Twitter data because one quarter of parents who use social media use Twitter (Duggan et al., 2015), and because unlike other user-declared networks (e.g., Facebook), Twitter is used to disseminate information freely (i.e., it does not require mutuality between two users to subscribe). The study examines breastfeeding because it is a topic about which the scientific community shares conventional wisdom, but about which popular opinion is mixed (Quigley et al., 2012; Mezzacappa & Katkin, 2002; Meyers & Chawla, 2000); however, one quarter of U.S. mothers do not breastfeed and less than half breastfeed for the recommended six months (Center for Disease Control, 2014).
To explore beliefs about breastfeeding through Twitter, an interdisciplinary team first gathered over 40 million tweets from the top 10 parenting-blog Twitter accounts (based on follower numbers) from March 1, 2016 – December 31, 2017 using the Twitter API. This bulk data was run through two state of the art algorithms for topic modeling, Latent Dirichilet Allocation (LDA) (Blei et al., 2003) and a variant of LDA that was developed for tweets (Zhao et al., 2011), to identify discrete “topics” on each account. This categorization process identified breastfeeding as a tweeted topic, and where (which account) breastfeeding was a topic, the frequency of that topic, and the frequency of terms associated with breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding was a tweeted topic on five of the 10 sites (whereas child and mother nutrition, for example, were topics on nearly all). The most commonly tweeted breastfeeding-related terms were “breastfeeding,” “breast” and “#nutrition”. Next analytic steps will include examining full tweets for both stance – if the tweet discusses the positive, negative, or neutral aspects of breastfeeding - and sentiment – what emotion is used in the tweet (positive, negative or neutral) to assess the nature and content of social media dialog about breastfeeding and how that content varies by source (i.e., handle or site).