In his new book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, author and New York Times contributor Seth Stephens-Davidowitz shines a light on the phenomenon of Google as confessional and, in particular, on the surprising way some parents are revealing their regrets to the search engine. What he found is jarring. Non-parents are seven times more likely to ask Google whether they will regret not having children than if they will regret having children, but parents are 3.6 times more likely to “tell” Google they regret their decision than childless adults. Does this mean there’s a hidden crisis in parenting? Stephens-Davidowitz isn’t ready to jump to that conclusion, but he does think Americans may be avoiding an awkward conversation.
“To be clear, this does not mean that all parents, or even the majority of parents, regret having kids,” says Stephens-Davidowitz. “But there are people who do regret becoming parents. And they’re not going telling their friends, or a survey, or even telling their partner might prove to be too difficult.”
What makes Google an interesting source–and also a problematic one–for a journalist like Stephens-Davidowitz is that people using it have a demonstrable bias to negativity. In other words, data collected using Google is, by definition, reflective of uncertainty. In a culture that asks adults to project assuredness and creates very few opportunities to exhibit regret, this makes search engines a great way to understand what topics people are actively avoiding. It may not, however, make search engines a great way to understand emotional experiences on a population level.
“The other thing we don’t know is what exactly ‘regret’ means in these cases,” Stephens-Davidowitz explains. “For many, it may just be a thought they have for a moment during a particularly bad day. A person who has slept two hours because their kid is sick and they’re overworked may type into Google, ‘I regret having kids.’ Every other day of their life their kids are the light of their life.”
Stephens-Davidowitz is very clear on this point: His numbers are not completely representative and there were numerous factors he was not able to account for through his exploring of Google. He couldn’t sort searches by age, gender, or income. He also couldn’t sort by correlated searches.
All those caveats aside, he does admit that he may have picked up a rock and found some wriggling emotions underneath. “I think it would be nice if we had a more honest discussion because of this data,” he says. What Google may do–if used right and interpreted responsibly–is allow for personal confessions to become cultural indicators when taken in aggregate. Number allow for journalists and experts to push for specific dialogues or to bring them to the fore. Stephens-Davidowitz hasn’t discovered that some parents regret the decision to have children, but he has arguably discovered a need for outlets like the Facebook group “I Regret Having Children,” which has over 7,000 followers and was created only last fall.
“It can be tough to have a kid, and people should be aware of those difficulties and even those regrets,” he says.
At the end of the day, the author of Everyone Lies is simply advocating for a change of behavior. He wants people to tell the truth. Who better to model that behavior than mom and dad?