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From stalker to dobber: parenting on social media

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My research and thinking, and even my identity with regard to social networking has evolved, but not in a way I have anticipated. Over the past three years, I have offered a number of conference addresses and keynote presentations focussed on the use of social media and networking in education. I have co-authored chapters in books about the challenges, potentials and pitfalls, and often humorously reflected upon myself as s stalker-mum or stalker-teacher.

Up until now, I have defended allowing and enabling my own children to enter social networks, and demonstrated all of the ways I have been a cyber-vigilante in order for their experiences to be educational. And, although the research was increasingly suggesting that we should be guarded towards others in virtual environments, perhaps wrongly, I was always more interested in protecting my children from themselves. Thus, the stalker-parent has been in the background watching interactions, commenting on wayward statuses, and generally hovering amongst the clouds to ensure that all was kosher. (The stalker-teacher, similarly has endeavoured to keep abreast of how she and her subjects are also represented ‘out-there’.)

In the eyes of the younger generation, today I have been promoted from stalker to dobber. In short, this means that in my stalking, something has caught my eye and concerned my heart/mind and my impulse has been to take action. Child A, who is very close to my heart, received a message on a social network from a random child from a neighbouring school, asking her if she knew Child B from Random School. Child A replied affirmatively, and asked why it was pertinent. Random Child replied that Child B had called Child A (insert bad swear words here). Child A approaches me, tearfully devastated that she/he has been referred to in such a way, and specifically by a friend, and that this is publically displayed for other friends and acquaintances to also see.

To highlight the issues in this scenario:
1.    Random Child does not know Child A. There was no provocation for the approach of Random Child to Child A or the subsequent short discussion.
2.    Child A and Child B have a great friendship which traverses gender.
3.    Child A and Child B’s families have a great friendship which traverses children, holidays and religion.
4.    Child B is not on social media, and is unable to defend him/herself with regards what he/she has or hasn’t said.

There are many other complex issues and considerations which could make it all seem more dramatic, but the crux of this story is that I dobbed. I called the parents of Child B and confronted them with screen shots of the claims of Random Child, and suggested that either Child B might need to make a significant apology, or that more seriously Child B was a victim of Random Child’s social manipulation. (Child A was simply the vehicle by which the bully blow could be delivered.)

I dobbed for a number of reasons:
1.    I dobbed because a public assassination of Child A’s identity was not acceptable.
2.    I dobbed because I was prepared to take the responsibility and care of Child A’s wellbeing, and wanted to offer Child B’s parents the opportunity to do the same for him/her.
3.    I dobbed because not identifying bad behaviour enables it to continue unspoken, and effectively reinforces it, as it continues unchecked.
4.    I dobbed because I love social networking and social media, and I am sick of them getting a bad reputation because users (or those responsible for users) do not take adequate responsibility in the ways that they represent themselves or appropriately represent and interact with others.

But actually, this is not the first time I have dobbed. The first time I dobbed (or offered an alert to a parent) was when a friend’s adult son’s social media account was hacked by friends. Their hacked status suggested that the adult son had overdosed on party drugs, and had admitted to a hospital. The post sounded ominously bad, and I contacted the parents to see if they knew, and if I could be helpful by looking after their younger child. For a short time, there was a load of anxiety as they tried to locate their son. The anxiety was shortly placated as they found him safely at a friend’s place, and the ‘hacking’ was exposed. We still reflect on whether dobbing was the right thing to do, and the friends always implore that I should dob again if ever I get concerned. The adult son continues to be an ongoing contact with me on social media, and appreciates that someone was watching out for him.

"Stalking" and "dobbing" are the wrong words to adequately reflect the actions and intentions of the author. However, our increasing presence and interactivity on social media and networking demand that we think about how all people can participate safely, and in what ways the complexities of virtual communities can be addressed by the various stakeholders. We cannot pretend that social media and networking will disappear, but we can think about how our children can be equipped to be digital citizens of rapidly changing futures (not another curriculum area, or job for schools to take on, but they might help).

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