Baby fever: UBC study finds advertising and social media can boost desire to have children

A new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business finds that viewing positive parent-child images in advertising and social media boosts empathic emotions, which in turn increases young adults desire to have children.

Portrait of happy loving mother and her baby outdoors

Researchers found that young adults who viewed the positive parent-child images had a 22 per cent stronger desire to have children than those who viewed the neutral images.

What exactly motivates people to have children? Over time, researchers have attributed it to reasons like biological drive, social pressures and emotional fulfillment. But according to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, advertising and social media should be added to that list.

The research team found that viewing positive parent-child images, like going to the park, having dinner, drawing, taking fun trips or playing with their children, reliably boosted young adults’ desire for their own little bundle of joy. This response is mostly driven by people’s empathic emotions.

Notably, viewing negative parent-child images, like children drawing on walls, crying, fighting with siblings, or having a meltdown on an airplane, did not have much of an effect on people’s desire to have children.

“Advertising and social media play an important role in how we view the world. In general, what we see on Instagram and Facebook are positive portrayals of parenthood, with #blessed and #bestkidsever. How often do we see parents post #mykidsareterrible?” asks study co-author and UBC Sauder Associate Professor Dr. Lisa Cavanaugh (she/her).

“We wanted to see if, by simply showing pictures of kids in advertising, we could affect the desire to have children.”

A desire that’s difficult to dissuade

In a series of four studies, researchers observed a total group of 1,093 young adults between the ages of 18-35, none of whom had children. Some participants were shown advertisements with positive parent/child images, and others were shown versions of the same ads but with the child removed.

Researchers found that young adults who viewed the positive parent-child images had a 22 per cent stronger desire to have children than those who viewed the neutral images (i.e. the same image but without a child). They also reported significantly greater empathic emotions (such as tenderness, compassion, sympathy, caring, affection) after viewing the parent-child images.

A second study looked at the response that viewing negative images would have on people’s desire to have kids. In this study, participants were divided into three groups: one that looked at positive images, another who looked at negative images, and one that looked at images of only the featured products.

Interestingly, those who viewed the positive parenting images experienced that same boost in their desire to have kids of their own, but those who saw images of misbehaving kids with frustrated parents did not see their desire wane. In fact, the negative portrayals of parenting didn’t have much effect at all.

“These are people who don’t yet have children, so it could be they see the comedy in kids behaving badly. When it’s not you trying to clean up the mess or get a child to eat before you go to work, it can be humorous,” says Dr. Cavanaugh, who co-authored the study with Dr. S. Katherine Nelson-Coffey of Sewanee: The University of The South.

“But we can say with certainty that people without children who saw these negative parent-child moments were not dissuaded.”

A long-lasting “baby fever” 

The researchers also found that the effects were far from fleeting among those who felt the increased desire to have kids, as these empathic emotions and aspirations to have children remained high even three days after seeing the images.

“That may not sound like a big deal at first, but consider the constant drip of images in our social media feeds. People are regularly seeing images of their friends’ kids along with plenty of celebrity parent pics posted on social media, and the effect could accumulate over time,” Dr. Cavanaugh said.

Dr. Cavanaugh says it is fascinating that when young adults are of childbearing age, their desire to have children could be measurably affected by something as simple and common as advertising and social media posts — especially since it’s a decision with such significant consequences for themselves and for society.

This study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Interview languages: English