Using WhatsApp support groups to promote responsive caregiving, caregiver mental health and child development in the COVID-19 era: A randomised controlled trial of a fully digital parenting intervention



In resource-constrained settings where face-to-face interventions may be impractical, this study explored the feasibility and impact of a digital parenting intervention in Zambia and Tanzania. Conducted as a randomized controlled trial, the Sharing Stories program targeted caregivers of children aged 9–32 months with smartphone access. The 6-week intervention, delivered through facilitated WhatsApp groups, aimed to improve caregiver wellbeing and foster responsive caregiving through shared reading activities. Primary outcomes included caregiver-reported responsive caregiving, child language, and socio-emotional development, while secondary outcomes focused on caregiver mental health and parental stress.

Between October 2020 and March 2021, 494 caregiver–child dyads were randomly assigned to the intervention (n = 248) or waitlist control (n = 246) group. Intervention group caregivers reported significantly higher levels of responsive caregiving (OR = 2.55, 95% CI: 1.15–5.66, p = 0.02), increased time spent reading or looking at books (β = 0.45, p = 0.04), and more storytelling (β = 0.72, p = 0.002). Additionally, intervention caregivers reported significantly lower symptoms of depression (β = −0.64, p = 0.05) and anxiety (β = −0.65, p = 0.02). Child development and parental stress did not differ significantly between the groups.

Digital parenting interventions delivered through WhatsApp demonstrated effectiveness in promoting responsive caregiving and enhancing caregiver mental health in low-resource settings, suggesting significant potential for scalability.


Keywords: Digital, parenting, child development, responsive caregiving, mental health, COVID-19