MANAGING THE MEAN-SPIRITED TEEN TECHNOLOGICAL SCENE
Princess Telephones Are Passé
Decades ago, parents pondered why teens tied up the telephone. Today, few use a landline. Parents often have no idea with whom their children communicate.
Kids don't converse; they "message" with extreme brevity, devoid of non-verbal cues, resulting in reactivity that occasions, more often than not, drama and hurt feelings.
"I see similarities with what teens have been struggling with even before technology," says Dr. Gary Litovitz, Medical Director at Dominion Hospital in Northern Virginia. "There've always been assaults on self-esteem." Teenagers spend time with friends to separate and individuate. Social networking can aid organizing a group for prom or getting to know peers.
"But there are shy, socially awkward teens viewing everyone else's online persona instead of socializing," Litovitz says. "That they're spending too much time social networking doesn't mean they're bad, but they lack skills needed to connect face-to-face. Others spend hours posting material about themselves, reflecting another type of insecurity." When adolescents develop a strong sense of self, fewer online problems arise.
In 2008, Nielsen Company reported that teens sent 2,272 texts (80 per day). Nearly half report that their social life would end or become obscured without their cell phone (CTIA and Harris Interactive survey).
While the Pew Report found most schools ban cell phones, nearly 60% of students admit texting during class time. Teachers report student reluctance to self-advocate in a face-to-face way yet see indirect texting for deadline extensions
Teens tout texting for "speed," "fun," and "avoidance" of verbal interaction.
"Communicating indirectly means we not only risk being misunderstood, but we miss building essential skills that improve with valuable face time," reports Tim Murphy, Ph.D., co-author The Angry Child and Overcoming Passive-Aggression. "With too much texting, we don't practice assertiveness nor learn those important facial and language cues that tell us how others react to us."
"If we never learn to approach a teacher or authority figure, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to fully connect in the moment. Those conversational complexities including body language and facial expressions allow us to listen, learn, and adjust what we say and how we say it. Those only adept at texting may later be clumsy, timid communicators with the boss, in a business meeting, or in close relationships."
Texting Taking a Toll
The past decade has seen adolescent and parental behavior make headlines. In Florida in 2010, Wayne Treacy allegedly beat, nearly killing, 8th grader Josie Lou Ratley over the content of text messages they exchanged. Dubbed the "text rage case," Treacy has been charged with premeditated attempted murder. The dispute involved him, the beaten girl, and her girlfriend who was using Josie's phone.
Disagreements led to harsh language. One message about Treacy's brother's suicide apparently set the 15-year-old off, kicking and punching Ratley with steel-toed boots.
In 2006, prosecutors said Missouri mom, Lori Drew, created fictitious Josh, an older teen on MySpace who sent flirtatious messages to 13-year-old Megan Meier.
Calling Josh "hot," Megan grew excited that someone accepted her. She had battled depression, ADHD, weight gain, and had an on/off friendship with Drew's daughter. Josh then dumped Megan saying, "The world would be a better place without you." Taking this to heart, Megan hanged herself. Drew was convicted of three minor offenses perpetrating this mean-spirited Internet hoax but escaped the main charge of conspiracy, because the federal jury could not reach a verdict.
Digital Media Has the Power
Dr. Michael Osit, a clinical psychologist and author of Generation Text, tells of a 16-year-old with excellent grades, social connections, and no prior psychological history; that is until a boy at school convinced her to send nude photos of herself ("sexting"). He disseminated the photos across the high school via text, leaving the victim feeling ridiculed by provocative names and innuendo.
Teens caught up in requests like this overestimate their privacy. Dr. Litovitz feels that teens also misjudge anonymity. "Social networking and texting has kids who don't even know the taunted person joining in without realizing the serious nature and the trail that links back to them." Some states have charged teenagers texting sexual content with child pornography.
"Parenting styles have changed resulting in empowerment for kids that I see as unhealthy," Osit reports. "With their need gratification constantly stroked, they push buttons and instantaneously get what they want —their self-worth tied to their net worth or latest phone, iPad, or gadget instead of how they treat themselves or others."
Building Boundaries Back Up Again
My practice includes several groups for middle- and high-school clients. I see girls, in particular, grapple with the instant need to be noticed and heard via technology. Their phones would ring during group counseling sessions to which they felt compelled to reply via text.
Some have shown photos on Facebook with seductive poses kissing the air it would seem and looking years older. We talk about how to present oneself, trust, boundaries, and respecting privacy. They'll admit that once you post on your "wall" and people comment, it's replicated on who knows how many Internet pages. Fun? Until headlines shock stirring awareness.
"Digitally-savvy kids make better choices about safety and privacy over time," reports John Palfrey, who co-wrote Born Digital. "Our research shows that kids turn to peers on how to interact in digitally-mediated environments. The job of adults is to get a conversation started in positive ways." Banning the technology outright isn't the solution.
Litovitz urges parents to watch their own modeling. Talk in complete sentences," he says. "You share a lot more than you can express in a text."
Murphy encourages families to listen to their values rather than give too much, too soon. "A 12-year-old may need a simple phone to call for a ride but not unlimited capacity to distract himself and everyone else," says Murphy, whose books talk about our over-indulged, frantic lifestyles. "Parents have to stop feeding these voices of desire and stress. Teaching children to set limits on themselves begins with parents setting limits on kids. There's no other way around it."