The mental health of children and adolescents is a priority area in Sweden . From an international perspective, younger children in Sweden have comparably good psychological health . When asked about their general health, Swedish children in 5th grade describe themselves as equally healthy or healthier than children did 20 years ago, which is well in line with the general development of public health in Sweden . However, youths in 9th grade describe themselves as less healthy. This is alarming, and it seems to be to be a specific Swedish problem since the development contradicts the development in the other Nordic countries and the rest of Europe, which seems to go in a more positive direction [3, 4]. The Swedish government has expressed its concern about this development and conducted an inquiry, which concluded that probably the most influential protective factors in a child’s life are the family and the parenting capacity of the parents [2, 5]. The inquiry emphasizes the complexity of parenting in modern society and stresses the need for provision of universal parental support of various kinds .
Parenting style is among the parameters that have sparked the most interest in parenting research . Ever since Baumrinds’  research on parenting control and warmth in the 1960s, different parenting practices have been demonstrated that either increase or decrease the risk of negative developments in children’s psychological health. Whereas psychological control (e.g. through love withdrawal, induction of guilt, invalidation of feelings, restriction of verbal expression, etc.) has been linked to increased risk of internalizing problems especially among girls, behavioral control (through limit setting, age-appropriate demands, monitoring, etc.) has been linked to increased well-being in children . Lack of warmth, poor parental responsiveness to the child, harsh and/or inconsistent limit-setting, poor monitoring, inappropriate developmental expectations and parental reinforcement of disruptive behavior are examples of parenting practices that have been shown to increase the risk of a negative development [9–14]. Authoritative parenting, parental sensitivity, warmth structuring and non-hostility, as well as parents satisfaction with social and emotional support have been connected with positive developments and may serve as a protective factor . Parental cognitive factors, such as self-efficacy and attitudes in relation to the child, have been found to be important factors in parenting .
During the last decade, several parenting training programs aimed at promoting positive and preventing negative developments have been introduced and spread in Sweden [17–19]. Although they differ in which types of parents they target, with regard to influences from different theories, group size, number of sessions, and the themes each method focuses on most, a common goal for the different programs is to promote positive and reduce harsh and inconsistent parenting. Several of these programs have been recommended for universal use by the Swedish Institute of National Health . While most of the programs still need to be evaluated for effect when used in a universal context, a shortened version of the program IYS (Incredible Years Series has been evaluated in Norway. It was found to reduce harsh parenting (moderate to large effects) and children’s’ behavior problems (small effects), and enhance positive parenting (large effects), and parents’ sense of competence (small effects) .
There is thus a large body of available research on parenting. However, the research has mainly been focused on mothers and mothers’ parenting behaviors and not taken fathers’ parenting or systemic aspects into account . Even if the father’s active and regular engagement in the child has been shown to be predictive of positive behavioral and psychological outcomes in the child , and even if many fathers want to be involved with their children, little or no help at all is offered specifically to the majority of these men regarding parenting . Thus, arguments are raised to urge both professionals and policy makers to improve circumstances for increased involvement of fathers in their children’s care and development [23–26]. Fathers increased involvement in family life is much needed. Since 1999, 80 percent of Swedish women are in the workforce . However, women still take the lion’s share of the parental leave, which leads to inequality at work and at home . The gender differences in sick leave have increased during the last 30 years . The main difference consists of womens’ sick leave increasing after the first child, and increasing even more after the second child .
A crucial issue when aiming support universally is how to reach out, and how to reach out in a way that will include fathers from the start. In a systematic review, the authors conclude that parents use the Internet as a source of information, and for social support, but also that the Internet contains an abundance of information that can be either useful or contradictory and misleading . In Sweden, people in general have access to, and use, the Internet. Sweden is ranked number one in the world on the World Wide Web Index, with the best web infrastructure, best web usage (percentage of web users and content available), and the highest impact of the web on social, economic and political dimensions .
The phenomenon when use of the Internet as a resource for information is unequally distributed in different socio-economic groups is known as the “digital divide” . In Sweden, however, when studying users of a large parenting website, usage was found not to follow the “digital divide,” but instead to reveal a surprising lack of fathers. This would indicate that the Internet as a resource for parents in Sweden may be a socially unbiased, but instead gender biased, medium . On the other hand, the parenting website in question features only female writers, and a compelling majority of the presented experts are women, and so as a visitor one might perceive the site to be aimed more towards mothers than fathers. When both parents feel equally addressed, the interest among fathers may be greater. This is supported by another Swedish study, where the effect of an online parent training program (Comet) was measured. When the program was offered online, 69% of the parents participated together, instead of the usual 8% when the same program is offered to groups of parents in real life, the other participants in such cases being only mothers .
In order to meet the challenges of parenting in the modern society, the Swedish government has formulated a national strategy for parenting support . The strategy is a broad approach with many different kinds of initiatives from parent education in antenatal clinics during pregnancy to the provision of various initiatives on the universal level, and addresses all parents of children between the ages 0 and 17 years, i.e. all parents are offered the same opportunities for support and help. The national strategy proposes that parental support should include activities that aim to give parents knowledge of children’s health and children’s emotional, cognitive and social development as well as to enhance parents’ social networks. Priority areas thus include universal parental support programs that aim to offer parents support and help in their parenting, individual counseling for parents by trained counselors, places where parents can meet and connect with other parents, and the provision of parenting support by municipal telephone or Internet services .
In Sweden, the municipalities already offer universal support to some extent through antenatal clinics, childcare, schools, the churches and volunteer organizations. In each municipality, support is offered in a range of different forms. Before developing universal support to parents, one should consider what they are most interested in benefitting from, and how to reach out to both mothers and fathers. Since mothers take on more responsibility at home [28, 29], we expected mothers to show greater interest in all forms of parental support.
The aim of the current study was to examine (1) to what extent the parents were interested in various forms of municipality-based parental support programs; (2) whether there were any differences between mothers and fathers as regards their interest in municipality-based parental support programs; and (3) if there were any differences between high to non-users of the Internet (as an information source in their parenting) regarding their interest in municipality-based parental support programs.