- Without facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, it’s hard to read emotions and intent in a text message, which can lead to mistakes and misinterpretations
- The immediacy of texting can lead to problems involving kids expecting instant answers or believing that they must always be available.
- Text messages are never completely private. Forwarding texts without permission can create conflict.
Most kids enjoy being able to text. It feels great to be able to reach their friends any time they want!
But texting with friends doesn’t always go smoothly for kids. Texting is a very stripped-down form of communication. Without facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, it’s hard to read emotions and intent. The potential for mistakes and misinterpretations expands dramatically with texting, compared to in-person communication. Emojis just don’t make up for all that lost information.
Group chats can be especially fraught. Conflicts can escalate quickly. Insults and accusations start flying, everyone takes sides, and someone can end up getting kicked off.
No one automatically knows how to manage texting. Your kid is likely to make mistakes, but by talking about some of the common pitfalls, you may be able to help your kid avoid them.
1. Expecting an instant answer and texting repeatedly
Because texting can be pretty instantaneous, kids may expect their friends to always answer their texts immediately. If they don’t get an instant response, they may feel hurt or angry.
Some kids react to a delayed or lack of response by anxiously fretting that the friend no longer likes them. As they work themselves up about the imagined rejection, they may ask plaintively, “Are you mad at me? Why aren’t you answering?” This gets old very fast for the friend.
Some kids get angry and become demanding, bombarding the friend with multiple texts saying, “Answer me!” It’s definitely not fun for a friend to be on the receiving end of that kind of pummeling.
What your kid needs to realize is that there are many reasons why the friend might not answer right away that have nothing to do with your kid. Maybe the friend is busy doing a family activity or taking a shower. Maybe the friend forgot to charge the phone or got in trouble and the friend’s parents confiscated it. Maybe the friend is never good at responding quickly to texts.
If your kid can imagine all of these possibilities and more, it will be easier to do the right thing when a friend doesn’t respond: wait. Give the friend a few hours or maybe even a day or two, then reach out again in a friendly way.
Here’s a quick video about dealing with an unresponsive friend:
2. Trying to discuss feelings or resolve problems by text
“Never text in anger” is good advice for everyone. While it’s tempting to dash off a quick and nasty text in the heat of the moment, that’s unlikely to be helpful. Tell your kid to take time to cool off to avoid sending a message that she will later regret.
There’s a lot of room for misunderstandings when communicating by text, especially when discussing emotional topics. Without the nonverbal cues, it’s very hard to read emotion correctly. Comments can come across as mean or sarcastic when they weren’t intended that way.
To help your kid understand this, have him say the sentence, “The glass is on the table” in an angry, scared, and sad tone. Same words; very different meanings. A text can’t capture this. It’s best to save emotional conversations for times when people can talk in person, over video chat, or even over the phone.
3. Forwarding someone else’s text without permission
Explain to your child that it’s not polite or kind to share someone else’s text without permission. If the sender wanted others to know, she would have included them on the text.
Sometimes kids share a text because they think they’re being funny. For instance, one of my clients told a friend the name of a person she liked. The friend shared it with someone else who then shared it with the whole school. This was a mean thing to do. My client felt very hurt and embarrassed. She also felt betrayed by the friend.
Sometimes kids share a text when one kid says something mean about another kid. Thinking they are being loyal, they rush to tell the other kid what the first kid said. Nothing good comes of this. The mean comment might have been just a momentary reaction, but if your child forwards it, he’s spreading meanness, violating the trust of the first kid, upsetting the second, and creating a conflict. A more effective reaction to mean comments is either to say, “Hmmm” and move on, remark, “That’s a mean thing to say,” or comment, “He always says nice things about you.”
4. Assuming that what they send will stay private
I tell my clients, “Never put anything online or in text that you wouldn’t want announced over morning announcements at school!” Although your child might understand the importance of keeping private conversations private, she can’t count on others doing so.
Here’s a helpful Venn diagram you may want to share with your child, explaining the relationship between the internet and privacy.
5. Thinking they have to be always reachable
Because texting allows kids to reach out at any time, they may believe that they have to be reachable at all times. This is not healthy. Set some guidelines with your kid about when texting is or isn’t allowed. Times when it’s not appropriate could include during family meals or activities, while studying, and after bedtime.
To avoid temptation, I strongly recommend that parents take devices out of children’s bedrooms at night. Far too many kids text the night away.
But what if someone reaches out to your kid when he’s not available? That’s okay. Your child will get back to the person as soon as it’s convenient.
© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD