There are hundreds of reasons why we’re members of Facebook parenting groups. They’re places we gather to find empathy, support and valuable advice on everything from spousal issues to our kids’ sickness symptoms and procuring just the right baby carrier. But if you’re anything like me, there’s another reason why we troll the latest posts—one we loathe to admit: the occasional cat fights. These entertaining little rifts tend to circle around recurring themes: vaccination, politics and homeschooling. (Insert GIF here of Michael Jackson eating popcorn in Thriller.)
The vitriol is pretty low-key in the mommy groups I belong to; it’s never quite matched what goes down in the locals-only Facebook group I merely surf. Those posts can be polarizing when it comes to the politics dividing up my little town, and there’s no shortage of nasty comments. Still, they can seem tame compared with the moms behaving badly in other Facebook parenting groups around the country, some of which have recently made headlines. Over the summer, the press had a field day after an incident on UES Mommas, a Facebook group of about 28,000 moms on the Upper East Side of Manhattan: There, two members had their lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter, in the name of libel, to commenters who called them “racist” in a thread. More recently, another uproar arose when an author put up a post of her new children’s book, P is for Palestine. As one member told the New York Post, the moms “immediately went apes\ht. People were posting about it and calling each other anti-Israel and anti-Muslim.” The group had been archived (meaning you could see old posts but couldn’t make new ones) while moderators met with Facebook officials to figure out how to deal with the mayhem, but recently reopened with new rules, including no public shaming, no vaccination posts and no politics.
Such episodes raise lots of questions about what’s appropriate when it comes to talking points and actions online, and just how much language matters. They’ve even inspired a gaggle of Facebook mommy group etiquette blog posts—“Don’t ask anything about vaccines! Don’t ‘mommyjack!’” (i.e., hijack the conversation to offer unsolicited advice or criticism). They’ve also highlighted how Facebook groups have evolved from an essential parenting tool that allows us to be always connected to flocks of other moms and dads—whom we may never meet in person—into something that may require a regular gut check or two.
Blurring Our Online and Real Lives
Being constantly connected to our phones and, by extension, social media, means our online lives are completely tangled up with our real lives, especially for those of us who rely on the solace that comes via Facebook groups. “We’re in denial about the emotional impact of our Facebook pages. We have to get to a place where we admit to ourselves that our online lives are real, that the feelings you have with your online interactions are real,” says Jeremy Adam Smith, editor of Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “The landscape has changed completely—there’s a constant chatter that’s going on through my day on my phone, and that’s transformative and unlike what existed in 2006.” Back then, he says, he would have to turn on his computer to check out posts on daddy blogs, but that meant he could also turn his computer off and, as he put it, “go back to my real life.”
That may not be a realistic option these days, but it can often be a good thing. On a Tuesday afternoon in early December, mothers in a group in New York’s Hudson Valley were helping each other find where they could take their kids to see Santa; asking about what using a Foley bulb with Pitocin to induce labor was like; and sharing which area stores were price-gouging customers on Fingerlings and L.O.L. Surprise! dolls, this year’s must-have Christmas toys.
On Gay Fathers, a Facebook Group comprised of dads from around the world, much of the action comes from sharing holiday-themed pictures, but connections have even helped foster adoptions. “We see stories of fathers coming together to help other kids find homes,” says Brian Copeland, one of the group’s administrators, citing a member in Florida who posted about two kids he read about who had been returned to the foster care system three times. The children were eventually adopted by two other members, men who lived in Tennessee.
“You’ll see celebrating happening, the real humanity of our fathers,” Copeland says. “You have to understand that some of these men are living in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri; they have no one else to come to. They’re saying, ‘Our son asked who his biological mother is. I don’t know how to deal with this, how did you?’”
Dealing With Discord
For all the good that comes with crowd-sourcing the challenges of raising kids, we still have to deal with the potential pitfalls that parents have always faced when they decide to ask others for help, notes Mikaela Pitcan, a researcher with Data & Society, a New York City think tank that focuses on the difficult social and cultural issues arising from technological innovations. You have to decide if the advice you’re getting is actually useful and trustworthy.
And when it comes to making or receiving offensive remarks or engaging in a heated discussion online, it can be much easier to misspeak or misread what’s going on when you’re not debating someone in-person. “We can cause offense or elicit negative reactions, and we process and cope with that in whatever way we know how,” Pitcan says. “One difference online is that we’re unable to use the nonverbal cues that help guide us through our day-to-day interactions and help us modulate our approach—tone of voice, facial expressions, body language.” It also means “we might commit social errors without even realizing it and persist in those errors because we don’t see the eye rolls or heavy sighs that would cue us to stop earlier on,” she says.
Perpetuating an argument online without these in-person cues—or being really rude to someone without considering his or her feelings—is sometimes referred to as the “online disinhibition effect”, and it can culminate into something messy, as in the case of the UES Mommas. A similar situation recently occurred within Minneapolis Moms, a group of 2,533 mothers, where 20 members were kicked out for verbally attacking each other and some of the administrators.
“It was a doozy,” says Katie Letourneau, one of the group’s admins, who said the discussion thread ballooned to more than 200 comments. While the conversation started out somewhat innocuous—a member, whose daughter was diagnosed with mono, had remarked that some of the home remedies she received from mothers of another group were sort of odd—it quickly spiraled out of control. “We had a couple of mothers jump in and say, ‘Why shouldn’t other moms tell her to try home remedies?’” Letourneau says. “People were saying things like, ‘I feel bad for your child’ and ‘You must be a joy to live with.’”
Moms of Beverly, a Facebook group for a neighborhood south of Chicago, recently decided to turn off its crime posts (brief descriptions by members of car break-ins, armed robberies and such), because of the tense racial undertones they evoked. “The posts could be biased—they’d set a description that usually said something like two African American males between the ages of 13 and 16, but give no other description,” says Shanya Gray, one of the group’s three moderators. “There’s roughly 1,500 kids in our neighborhood that fit that description; all the rhetoric would continue even though research has shown that crime is spread around culture and races.” She adds, “Those types of discussions weren’t helpful and didn’t make us feel comfortable.”
Giving Rise to Niche Parenting Groups
One positive upshot from parenting group discord has been the evolution of groups that adhere to a specific set of preferences and rules, which helps administrators quickly quash exchanges that could escalate into ugly debates. Many of Gay Fathers’s original members were initially part of a larger group, which “wasn’t as parent-focused as it needed to be,” Copeland says. “We saw the need for a place where a father who happens to be LGBT could sit down, open up the computer and not worry about opening a page and seeing something that they wouldn’t want their family to see.”
Minneapolis Moms was also an outgrowth of a larger Minnesota mothers’ group. The group’s founders wanted to foster a “safe space” for mothers who rely solely on scientifically backed medical advice (as opposed to anything, say, homeopathic).
“We’re pro-vaccination and follow the American Academy of Pediatrics when it comes to vaccination schedules and the safe sleep rule,” Letourneau says. Other hot-button topics that don’t pass muster: sharing beds with your kids, pediatric chiropractic care, essential oils, multi-level marketing (no LuLaRoe leggings!) and soliciting your business. Men are also flagged.
“We accept that we’re not the group for everyone,” Letourneau says, noting that many women in the group wouldn’t be comfortable sharing some of the details they do if they knew men were present. “We’re okay with that. We want to be a space for members who follow these beliefs, want it to be a place where it’s safe to say what they want and they won’t be policed.”
To that last point, Letourneau, Copeland and admins of other groups say that because their members are aware of the rules—members have to agree to them before they’re admitted—they rarely have to actively monitor what’s being talked about, though they remain visible and involved. For the most part, members do it for them. “Our group is like a well-run classroom where you can step away and the kids will run it the way they’re supposed to,” says Lauren Kent, another Moms of Beverly host. “We’ve set a tone in our group, and our members carry it for us."
As for me, I appreciate this safe haven where I can feel secure about posting my opinions about spending my tax dollars on our local high school’s rooftop garden. I’m completely confident that the local garden mothers won’t spear me online; I just won’t expect them to invite me to their next in-person meetup, and that’s totally fine with me.
Published December 2017