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Parents’ online discussions about children’s dental caries: A critical content analysis

Avery Milne, Cynthia A. Weijs, Rebecca J. Haines-Saah, Lindsay McLaren


OBJECTIVES: Through an analysis of postings to an online parenting forum, we aimed to explore the many ways in which parents orient to (i.e., take up, challenge, re-articulate) information about child dental health in the context of their online interactions. Our analysis is anchored in Nettleton’s theoretical work on dental authority and power, which we apply in a digital context.

METHODS: We examined discussion threads from the public online forums on BabyCenter Canada. We identified relevant threads using the site search function and keywords related to dental health, with a focus on dental caries (tooth decay), related care behaviours (e.g., toothbrushing), and the controversial issue of fluoride. Following descriptive content coding, we applied a critical lens to unpack themes related to expert knowledge, gender and parenting online cultures.

RESULTS: We analyzed 479 relevant threads. Our findings focus on two central themes: the tension between parents’ views and those of dental health professionals; and, the gendered, cultural roles and expectations that position mothers as primarily responsible for the care of children’s dental health. Though these themes are not new, our findings show that they persist in the digital context where social divisions (e.g., expert/non-expert) may be blurred.

CONCLUSIONS: Our analysis of online discussions provides an opportunity to think critically about ways in which parents engage with public health, in digital contexts. Although some mothers express disconnect when communicating with dental professionals, they are very engaged and concerned with dental health issues for their children. A challenge for dental public health is to find ways to shift perspective towards recognizing that the target population is empowered and already engaged in discussions of research evidence and clinical encounters on their own terms, facilitated by an online context.


Dentistry; parents; public health; social media; sociology

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