BC Guide - Moderating Online Discussion Forums

Online discussion forums offer many opportunities for participants to share evidence-based information and provide support to one another. Unfortunately, they also provide opportunities for sharing erroneous information and for discourse that is unsupportive and possibly harmful, or even illegal. Negative posts can be personally hurtful to participants and can harm the goodwill and reputation of Breastfeeding USA. Therefore, Breastfeeding Counselors should ensure that discussion forums are moderated effectively so that all participants get the information and support they need.

Discussion Guidelines

Breastfeeding Counselors should establish guidelines for forum participation that outline the expectations for respectful discourse. Breastfeeding Counselors may also wish to specify how to handle off-topic posts. A description of the purpose of the forum and the discussion guidelines should be posted on the homepage/About section of the forum.

Breastfeeding Counselors can share discussion guidelines with new members and even make agreeing to the guidelines a condition of joining. Discussion guidelines should be re-posted to the list periodically to remind participants of the expectations for account usage. Assuming that participants will follow the guidelines, accounts can be set to unmoderated discussion, but the moderators should monitor the discussion and be ready to respond to any post that does not conform to the guidelines. This is especially important on Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Managing Membership

Community Chapter discussion lists should be set up to limit participation in some way. Moderators can either issue invitations to join the discussion or monitor and respond to requests to join. Participation can be made available to anyone interested or to a more limited group (e.g., to Chapter meeting attendees or Breastfeeding USA members). Most discussion list services also permit moderators to restrict posting for certain members, and to delete members and ban them from participation, if needed. Discussion guidelines should specify if posters who disregard guidelines may be subject to such consequences.

Moderating Discussion

Some level of moderation is required for any online discussion forum. The more open the forum and the more active the discussion, the more moderation required. Moderation requires regular monitoring of the discussion to screen for: posts that do not conform to the forum guidelines; spam or other off-topic posts to promote business or causes; erroneous information; and personal helping requests. Forum moderators should respond to these situations to ensure that the discussion stays focused on providing evidence-based information and effective mother-to-mother support. (See the following section about how to respond to inappropriate posts.)

Since these situations are best addressed as soon after the posting as possible, it is important that the forum not be left unmoderated for any length of time. Having more than one moderator on the account provides a backup in case the primary moderator cannot monitor the discussion at certain times due to family or personal needs, and also ensures that if a Breastfeeding Counselor loses access to her account there is still access to the group, forum, page, or account. Account moderators do not have to be Breastfeeding Counselors, so Chapters may use local volunteers to help with this job. However, since effective moderation is important in keeping the discussion focused, moderators should be oriented to Breastfeeding USA and familiar with all the concepts discussed in this section. Remember, only Breastfeeding Counselors may provide direct breastfeeding support under the coverage of the Breastfeeding USA professional liability insurance, so volunteers must refer personal questions to Breastfeeding Counselors. Breastfeeding Counselors may contact the Social Media or BC Support Workgroups to possibly assist as an account moderator if no local volunteers are available to help.

Responding to Inappropriate Posts

Discussion forum moderators should respond promptly to all potentially disrespectful or hurtful posts. The response should identify the problem, call attention to the guidelines, and also address the feelings of anyone who may have been offended. Moderators should also address situations where participants post spam or off-topic information about potentially controversial issues (such as politics or religion), or use the forum to promote personal business ventures or causes not related to the Breastfeeding USA mission. Again, a response from the moderator can identify the problem and affirm the purpose of the discussion forum. Moderators may decide to delete or hide from view any inappropriate posts and may also choose to apply consequences to posters of inappropriate material.

Community Chapters may choose to discuss issues that are off-topic but somewhat related to breastfeeding (e.g., parenting practices or infant sleep), but ensure that discussion participants understand that Breastfeeding USA makes no statement on those practices. Breastfeeding Counselors responding to direct questions about breastfeeding-related issues may choose to post information that focuses as much as possible on the breastfeeding implications and avoids lengthy discussion of other aspects of the issues.

Responding to Breastfeeding Inquiries

Discussion forums and social-media accounts are a great resource for participants to ask general breastfeeding questions and request individual help with breastfeeding problems. When responding to inquiries on discussion forums, Breastfeeding Counselors should use general counseling skills. Many of the tenets of good email helping also apply to social-media responses. Responding to direct questions in online forums requires tact and a gentle touch. The mother’s feelings, as well as her privacy, should be considered. It may take some practice to learn how to respond briefly and still convey warmth and empathy. Breastfeeding Counselors may want to observe posts on the Breastfeeding USA Facebook page and other similar forums to familiarize themselves with typical inquiry responses.

Because only Breastfeeding Counselors are trained by Breastfeeding USA to provide information and support and are covered by Breastfeeding USA professional liability insurance, participants who are not BCs must not respond to individual help requests. Breastfeeding Counselors need to make sure that only account moderators who are BCs respond to any personal help questions that come through the page privately, and redirect participants with breastfeeding questions to receive individual support from a Breastfeeding Counselor.

Ideally, Breastfeeding Counselors will make full responses to personal breastfeeding questions privately. Answering offline allows a Breastfeeding Counselor to provide more personalized help, obtain more background information, and coordinate any needed follow-up, following the techniques for email helping. To encourage this offline dialogue, a BC could respond like this:

Thank you for your question. For your privacy and safety, it is the practice of Breastfeeding USA to refrain from addressing personal breastfeeding questions on Facebook and other social-media accounts [or insert the name of the Chapter account]. We encourage you to contact any of the [Chapter name] Breastfeeding Counselors for one-to-one information and support: [contact information]. Additional support can be found from other Breastfeeding USA Counselors: https://breastfeedingusa.org/content/breastfeeding-counselor-locations, or from a local International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) from ILCA. https://portal.ilca.org/i4a/memberDirectory/index.cfm?directory_id=18&pa... . We appreciate your understanding and cooperation.

For breastfeeding questions posted that are clearly general in nature, a Breastfeeding Counselor does not need to moderate or respond, and can allow other forum participants to reply as long as all responses are accurate and respectful. But moderators should redirect the poster to Breastfeeding Counselors for one-on-one support for personal questions, such as:

  • “My breasts hurt. Do I have mastitis?”
  • “My baby is really fussy and doesn’t nurse well in the evenings, so I’m afraid I’m not making enough milk for him. Should I give him a bottle of formula if he still seems hungry after nursing?”
  • “My baby is sick and is vomiting several times a day. What can I do to make sure he doesn’t get dehydrated?”

If it is not clear whether the poster is asking a personal question, a Breastfeeding Counselor may want to respond and ask for clarification to determine whether the poster is interested in general breastfeeding information or is seeking help for a personal problem. Some examples of questions that could be either general or personal include:

  • “How long should mothers breastfeed?”
  • “How would you handle [situation]?”
  • “What is Breastfeeding USA’s opinion about [situation]?”

When questions relate to Breastfeeding USA policies or positions, Breastfeeding Counselors may quote from, or direct the poster to, relevant information on the public portion of the Breastfeeding USA website. (The For Members and For Volunteers sections of the website are not accessible to the general public.) If the question cannot be answered by the information on the website, Breastfeeding Counselors can check with BC Support to determine an accurate response.