As parents, we’re usually focused on the more obvious social dangers of the internet: the predators, the local kids who reach through the internet to harass and intimidate, or the links that can lead our children to extremely inappropriate content.
Given those worries, it can be easy to overlook something much less dangerous but also full of emotional land mines for your child: internet message boards.
There are literally millions of informal message boards out there being run by kids for kids. For many kids, the internet message boards are one of the places where they can find like-minded soul mates, a place where they fit in perfectly. The internet is a godsend to them, as it has been to many adults.
But our children are hitting social challenges at an earlier age than we did as a result.
Flame wars. People following others from another site and continuing the argument there. Stealing fan fiction from each other. Incredibly profane and over-the-top personal insults, sometimes even death threats, words that would probably never be voiced in person but the internet makes it so easy.
Yet the internet can be a great source of friendship, support, and new ideas for out kids. The trick is not to keep your kids off message boards to avoid these problems, the trick is to find a place where their minds are stimulated and engaged more than they’re enraged or insulted.
With my help, my eldest daughter, who moderates a board for a popular young adult book series, has developed a list of questions to ask when vetting a message board or on-line community.
1. Is it well-moderated?
This means that the moderators are regular posters, that they keep discussion going, and that they jump on problems almost instantly before they get out of hand. My daughter has been witness to some boards that have melted into pieces because they were under-moderated.
On one official board for a bestselling author, the board went into meltdown when the last book in the series came out. The moderators tried to control it but they were hopelessly outnumbered and didn’t manage to contain the damage. She said it’s not that the board wasn’t moderated, it was that it was under-moderated.
On my daughter’s current board, there is a team of moderators, several admins, and the owner of the site. If someone is causing problems, the moderating team can work together, sort out what needs to be done, and also prevent each other from becoming petty tyrants.
And check to see if the posters are policing themselves. On most well-run boards, the posters themselves will check each other, sometimes even before a moderator can get involved. This is a sign of a strong community.
2. Do the posters have substantive discussion?
If most of the subject headings are “this new book is teh suck” or “omigod, so awesome,” that might be a good indication that the board is going to be very dull or shallow. Instead, look for posts that ask interesting questions or explain something or illuminate the subject in a new way.
3. Is there a place for off-topic conversation? This is important because off-topic conversations build community, a
community that hopefully will be a source of friendship and support.
But off-topic posts can also be exclusive, create cliques, and overwhelm the substantive discussion in the on-topic threads. A good board will have a separate area for off-topic posts, a sort of playground where everyone can relax.
4. Is there a Code of Conduct/FAQ for the board?
Good codes of conduct will contain rules such as “stay on topic,” “discuss the post and not the poster,” and “no one line or one word posts, contribute something more than that.”
And upfront Code of Conduct cuts down on trolls or arguments and gives the moderators a basis for enforcing rules, rather than relying on arbitrary rules that may or may not be stated explicitly.
As a parent, I also try to teach my kids that if an argument gets circular, they should let it go. They need to learn that if someone is driving them crazy, they should disengage, not prove the other person wrong or get the last word in.
Though it’s likely that they’ll probably be involved in a few arguments such as the one pictured below before they learn that lesson.