There’s occasional drama within these groups, but that’s a social media norm. For the most part, it’s a virtual place where many of us turn to connect with family, friends and even strangers. Facebook has a reputation for being the place where threads of people — many of whom have probably never met one another — argue about politics or economics, or disagree in ALL CAPS. But for me and many mid-30s millennials, it’s a place to post pictures of our kids, wish aunts and uncles happy birthday and generally avoid controversy. (We save that for Twitter.)
When discussions would sometimes get heated within my mom groups, the administrators of the pages usually stepped in to facilitate friendly discussion and remind us of group rules: no bullying or hate speech, be kind and courteous, no drama. It was, for the most part, an effective strategy.
Since the novel coronavirus hit, though, I’ve noticed that the tone in these groups has shifted. Conversations initially changed to advice on where to buy a swing set or talk of home-schooling resources. But then the mom-shaming began. Though these groups exist so we can help each other shoulder the burden of parenting and shield each other from negativity, self-righteous replies and judgmental feedback were suddenly peppered throughout every thread. An innocent question about when to take the kids to visit their grandma elicited dozens of nasty responses. Advice on where to get groceries or takeout led to arguments and name-calling. It seems that just when we need our online communities most, they’ve become toxic.
In the past, I appreciated these parenting groups for the variety of ways in which we could support each other. I’ve enjoyed tapping into the hive mind of nearby moms, where conversations usually range from where to donate children’s clothes, to day-care center recommendations, to advice on breastfeeding, potty training and screen time, but now I wonder if the negativity outweighs the benefits.
Elizabeth, who’s an administrator of a New York City Facebook parenting group with more than 4,000 members, spoke on the condition that only her first name be used to protect the group’s privacy. She says that some group members have posted photos of people they believe are behaving “unsafely” by not following strict social distancing guidelines. In the comments, she says, parents pile on from both sides of the argument.
“The worst has been direct shaming of people and the insult-slinging that follows,” she says. Along with another administrator, Elizabeth has been moderating and removing problematic posts, but she says it has been exhausting and that her otherwise peaceful group has been tough to manage during the pandemic.
Members posting or threatening to post photos of other people’s kids as a form of shaming has become a common issue in groups across the country. Amy Roberts, of Westchester, N.Y., says that in her group, every time someone threatens to post pictures of kids they see around town, parents light up the responses to say that it would not be okay, and that seems to keep things in check.
In some cases, conversations have become so volatile that the administrators have archived the group, which means the group doesn’t appear in searches and no new members can join. This happened to Tiffany Pitts, of Washington state, after two parents argued about whether it was safe to travel, and one of the parents took to all of the local Facebook pages to insult the other.
“There is so much unchecked privilege in these conversations,” says Cristen Pascucci, a mom in Kentucky, who says she’s sick of the negativity in her local parenting Facebook group and wishes people would stop assuming that we’re all in the same situation. “It’s not easy to just ‘stay home’ when you are in an abusive relationship, or a single mom with a newborn, or packed into a tiny apartment with no sunlight.” Instead of addressing these nuances and offering support or help, though, Pascucci says people are arguing with each other about what they should or should not be doing.
When it comes to parenting, every day can be a challenge, and the coronavirus has made an already scary world feel even more threatening. Cruelty toward other parents is not going to make the pandemic disappear, and publicly shaming everyone we disagree with has led to a lack of compassion, both online and off. And yet no one is going to get through to anyone else by resorting to name-calling or bullying.
I have continued turning to these groups for advice not related to the pandemic, such as how to get rid of carpenter ants or where I can find a secondhand baby swing. But when I’m struggling with something about social distancing, I don’t go to social media groups. I turn to my family and friends for their opinions. We don’t always agree, but I don’t risk an onslaught of mom-shaming from strangers on the Internet. That support is a privilege I am grateful for, one that not every parent has.
The administrators and moderators in my own groups tell me that after a few heated discussions during the early weeks of social distancing, the group threads have generally been peaceful. Some members even say they’ve seen heightened positivity and increased kindness, which is encouraging. That is how I try to approach social media. If I don’t have a kind remark or a helpful suggestion, I refrain from commenting, and if a parent is looking for compassion, I try to provide it. We don’t know what’s on the other side of the screen, and if we want to support each other, kindness is always the right response.
Laura Leigh Abby is a writer, wife and mama living in New York’s Hudson Valley. She is the author of “2Brides 2Be: A Same-Sex Guide for the Modern Bride” and “The Rush,” an Amazon Kindle Single.