Responsibility in the Online World

I belong to a number of online parenting groups. Most of them are related to special needs parenting but I am also in a couple of groups for local moms.

In one of these groups, I recently got involved in a debate on vaccines. I won’t go into the details of the debate, but like these things do, it turned ugly. This was in part my fault because I used the word “responsibility.”

While my statement was not directed at anyone in particular, at least one mom took it personally. I understand. She loves her children and doesn’t want to be judged, and I ended up looking like the bad guy. I absolutely stand by the content my statement, but I felt pretty beat up in the process. I apologized. She didn't.

This incident got me thinking about what it means to be involved in mailing lists, blogs and other online communities.

Groups provide a support network. When you are facing a problem as a parent, it is wonderful to have people give you support and tell you they’ve been there too. As the parent of a child with special needs, I cannot overstate the power of knowing you are not alone. But we don’t grow much by sending virtual hugs.

Most online parenting groups also have an explicit or implicit knowledge sharing component. Again, this is invaluable. If you’re looking to find out the best brand of cloth diaper, or need to know who carries a specific type of chewy tube, parenting groups can be the best source of information. If you are having a problem getting your four year old with autism to sleep, as I did, parents hold an amazing wealth of specific, helpful information.

But inevitably, where there is sharing there is disagreement, and discussions turn into debates. The questions start out innocently enough. “My 6 month old doesn’t fall asleep and we’re at the end of our rope. Does anyone have any tips for sleep training?” Before you can type “Ferber method” the discussion has turned into a debate about whether or not you are a caring parent if you let your kid “cry it out.”

In this case, it seems obvious that we should try to be respectful of other parenting styles and learn what we can from them. But what happens when someone says something that is misleading, false or potentially harmful?

Say, for example, someone makes a statement that it is dangerous to wear a seat belt. She includes a lot of  information about how many seat belt injuries occur each year, the likelihood that she will be in an accident and even an anecdote about someone she knows who was in a car accident, didn’t wear a seatbelt, and walked away without a mark.

Do we, as members of the group, have an obligation to respond to this? Do we have to treat all opinions as equal, or worry about hurting someone’s feelings by telling her that she is wrong or even, yes, irresponsible? People read our posts. Information gets forwarded, quoted elsewhere, discussed over coffee, and influences decisions. And when you are talking about an issue, like vaccines, that enters into the realm of public health, the stakes are high.

We have access to more information than we can possibly take in, and our online communities help us filter that information. It is up to us to be good citizens of these communities. That means being supportive, but it also means that when we see dangerous misinformation, we need to respectfully, but unapologetically, point that out.

Have you ever been involved in an out of control online community debate? When do you speak up or choose to let things go?

Jen Bush also writes at her personal blog, Anybody Want A Peanut? and on the 14th of each month at Hopeful Parents.You can follow her on Twitter @wantapeanut.

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