The playground politics of the parents’ chat group

From The Financial Times.

Misinformation, gossip and scaremongering are poisoning communication channels.

“Is swimming on today?” “Does anyone know if there’s any homework?” The parents’ WhatsApp group will be familiar to anyone with a child at primary school. For working mothers and fathers unable, or unwilling, to hang out at the school-gate, as well as the perennially disorganised, the school WhatsApp group is a vital source of information. After all, WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service, is changing many areas of life. In the office it is an alternative channel to cut through the email overload (if only to provide another source of overload), to flatten hierarchies, to gossip and bully. In politics, it is a platform to discuss policy and strategy, leak stories to the press, and plot coups. Yet, it has also been responsible for spreading misinformation. In India fake news shared over WhatsApp has led to lynchings and ratcheted political tensions. In New York, WhatsApp misinformation has terrified anti-vaxxers. In school groups, WhatsApp misinformation is having an effect too. In Manchester, in north-west England, parents were reported to have shared homophobic slurs and misinformation about government proposals to include lessons on relationships via WhatsApp groups. As one message, seen by the Manchester Evening News, put it: “Teachers are getting away with pep classroom talk. This needs to be addressed . . . focus should be on lessons NOT the teacher’s bloody personal gay lives.” The anxiety is not restricted to Manchester. A couple of my London friends have complained of scaremongering shared in their parent WhatsApp groups about sex and relationship education in school. One London headteacher, who acknowledges there are positives for parents on WhatsApp, says that much of the time she should be attending to children is spent correcting “fake news” — or misinformation — spread via the groups. Parents worried about rumours over sex and relationship education, for example, had recently worked themselves into a lather on their groups. If only they had talked to her in the first place, she says, the fears would never have developed. The difference between WhatsApp and traditional playground gossip, the headteacher says, is that carping can “run and run and merge into constant complaints”. Teachers can feel “under surveillance”, she adds. This may be a further source of stress for staff, who according to teachers’ unions, are already overwhelmed by late-night emails from anxious parents, on top of their normal workload. A study into various WhatsApp groups, which also included teachers, found that parents became over-involved in the school, while the informality of the channel made the relationship too chummy, and led to message overload and misunderstandings. WhatsApp can also escalate discontent. One friend complains of mums and dads who constantly spread rumours. In one ugly discussion about a teacher, parents strategised about the best way to get her sacked — that is until the headteacher found out and stopped it. Dominic Floyd wrote about the problem in Attain, the independent school magazine. The headteacher at Mount Kelly, a private school in Devon, underlines the virtues of such groups but tells me that more vocal parents can “create a distorted picture of what is happening at school”. There is, after all, a divide between the lurkers and the communicators in any group chat. A product manager ran a statistical analysis on his own child’s class WhatsApp group, identifying “participation inequality”, common to Twitter users too. One parent alone, he discovered, sent 27 per cent of all the group’s messages. Some users do not come out of these groups well. One poster on Mumsnet, the parent messaging site, has identified various tribes: the informer, who likes to be able to be the first to break all school news, or the health scare mum — “Does this rash look like scarlet fever? The Dr says it is but I’m not sure so I’ve sent KellyAnn to school anyway, but I’m not sure???” What can schools do to police parent WhatsApp groups? Very little, according to Mr Floyd, who tells parents to address concerns directly to teachers. “We can advise . . . [but] one would hope as grown adults the content one writes would be measured and considered.” emma.jacobs@ft.com

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