Shaming Anti-Vaccine Parents Could Backfire, Experts Warn

Baby vaccinationThe recent outbreak of measles traced back to Disneyland in California has brought new attention to the vaccine debate. Frightened people across the country are voicing their views on the internet, sometimes not politely.

Angry comments on social media and message boards are nothing new. Topics like politics and religion are reliable hot-button material, and within the autism community, this can be extended to everything from neurodiversity to choices of treatments. Liz Roush addresses this in a blog titled Why All the Hate in the Autism Community? published on The Mighty website. In the article, she speaks of the power of social media to help parents feel less alone, while expressing concern over the tendency for comments to “. . .become vehemently vicious when someone makes a comment or writes a post that contradicts their opinion.. . ” She says,

“We want our kids to be accepted by society for who they are and to be treated with respect. How in the world can that ever happen if we ourselves are unable to give each other respect? We need to quit working against one another and be more supportive and understanding as a whole without getting caught up on individual choices.

The vaccine debate has always been heated, but the recent cases of measles have taken things to a new level. Comments on social media are becoming even more vicious, with comments like “stupid” and “selfish,” along with other, less printable adjectives. While this may allow posters to feel a temporary catharsis, in the long run, it could actually cause more individuals to turn towards the anti-vaccine movement, according to a recent study.

Dr. Gary Freed from the University of Michigan and Dr. Brendan Nyhan from Dartmouth University conducted a study that showed that parent who were against vaccination were even less likely to vaccinate their children after being the object of vitriolic comments on social media.

“It could make the problem worse,” Dr. Nyhan told NBC News. “If people call me selfish and dumb, it doesn’t make me more open-minded. . . it turns into an ‘us versus them’ thing.”

“There is a psychological tendency called disconfirmation bias. Information we don’t want to hear, we try very hard to reject it. This is especially true for beliefs that are central to our identity,”

he went on to say.

He also expressed concern that this could lead parents who are on the fence regarding vaccinations to fall in with the anti-vaccine movement.

While topics like vaccination can stir up strong feelings from both sides, it’s also true that most people are coming from a place of concern about their children. While there are certainly internet trolls who enjoy causing distress, the majority of commenters are parents who are concerned for the safety of their children – on both sides of the debate. There will always be those who disagree, and it is not productive to shame and ridicule those whose beliefs are different. Doing so may, in fact, be counter-productive.