Social networks enable connection, interaction, and communication. One significant source of interaction in social networks lies in the ability to engage in online discussions by leaving comments. I may post a status update on Facebook announcing some great thing that happened to me, and within minutes my friends will start posting their own congratulatory comments. This fundamental feature has become ubiquitous on the web. Even traditional news outlets that post stories read by millions of people provide the opportunity to respond and react by leaving comments. As Jay Rosen observed, we are “the people formerly known as the audience.” Online “netizens” expect to be able to engage in the discussion, whether it’s a news article on CNN or a status update of one of our friends on Facebook.
The positive aspects have been well-studied. “Online discussion forums allow for convenient and ongoing communication among groups of people separated in place and time. In the best of cases, such forums can evolve into communities whose members share information, experience a sense of belonging, and provide mutual support.”8
Of course, the negatives are equally well-known. In an environment where everyone has a voice, well, everyone has a voice. In some environments a host may choose to not allow comments at all, just to reduce the noise. Other sites support moderated comments where users are free to respond, but a moderator must approve before the comments appear. Facebook allows a user to delete any comments made to any of their posts, which is a form of moderation after the fact.
Comments may be the source of undesirable content. Within comments users may include URLs to websites that may not be consistent with your standards. On many commercial sites, users must have an account in order to leave comments, thus creating a level of protection against abuse of the system. Of course, with registered accounts come profile pictures, which are often displayed alongside an individual’s comment. On some sites you will find that the thumbnails accompanying user comments can be immodest or otherwise inappropriate.
In the case of Facebook, you have reasonable control over your environment because access to your posts is predominantly limited to friends that you have accepted. As a parent of teenagers, it’s important to check out the profiles of your teens’ friends. They can exert a powerful influence on the lives of your kids through the things they post and the social ethic they portray via their profile. On more than one occasion I have had a conversation with one of my teenagers that goes something like this, “Who’s so-and-so?” The response may range from “My best friend. Why? What’s your problem?” to “Some kid I met at school. His Facebook page kind of creeps me out.” In any case, it’s an opportunity for a conversation. In some instances I have asked my kids to unfriend an individual that I felt was having a bad influence or whose behavior seemed to be hostile or inconsistent with our standards as Latter-day Saints.
Another risk inherent in social media is that it gives cyberbullies an opportunity to abuse or torment their victims. With a Facebook account, a bully can leave disparaging comments on your child’s Facebook page. Of course, one of the main ways for your children to protect against this sort of behavior is to only engage in communication online with people they actually know in real life and who they trust at a personal level. Cyberbullies often thrive on anonymity, so avoiding interactions with unknown people provides a level of protection.
Two behaviors that emerge in online discussion forums deserve at least passing mention: trolling and flaming. Trolling involves a deliberate attempt to lure others into a heated or emotional discussion. Don’t ask me why, but some people on the web get some twisted thrill out of provoking others. Flaming is related, but refers specifically to insulting, provoking, or otherwise emotional and emotion-inducing communication. The relationship between trolling and flaming are obvious. Trolling is sometimes referred to as “flame-bait” since its goal is to egg someone into losing it in a public exchange (sometimes called a “flame war”). For the most part, trolling and flaming do little real damage, other than wasting time and damaging relationships. The most important advice I can give is that we should engage online with the same dignity and decorum with which we should be engaging in person. Ignore the trolls, and don’t ever flame.