Group chats can be a fun way for teens to unwind and connect with friends after a busy day at school—or a major source of stress and discomfort. Our friend Rohil, 16, recalls a recent text chain that started out as light banter about the NFL, then quickly degenerated into a hostile debate about players kneeling during the National Anthem. Some participants left the conversation as it grew increasingly heated, personal and unproductive, but others found it impossible to disengage.
In an ideal world, we’d all have the courage to remove ourselves from toxic situations, but the reality is that it can be surprisingly tough to say, “I need to go.”
Shutting Down a Toxic Group Chat
Here are five of our favorite strategies for managing group chats.
1. Come up with a benign but believable excuse.
Our friend Jessica, 16, will say, “My phone is about to die,” or “I have to go to dinner.”
Even if a group chat is harmless or entertaining, we may simply want to go do something else. As teens, we have to meet endless demands, including homework, sports, and other activities. Sometimes we’re exhausted and just want to go to sleep. In those moments, it’s helpful to have a few plausible, boring excuses on hand.
We know our parents don’t mind if we blame them for limiting our screen time, and we have no problem saying we have an early morning commitment the next day.
2. Lighten the mood with humor.
If you can’t remove yourself from a conversation entirely, use humor strategically.
Our friend Abbey, 16, was once in a group chat that became competitive and stressful. As the participants drilled each other about their college acceptances, Abbey grew more and more uncomfortable, but she still struggled to end the conversation. She wishes she had thought to jump in with a funny one-liner, such as, “I broke all of my fingers and can’t text,” or “I’m allergic to technology.”
Humor can break the tension and allow you to disengage without being confrontational or offending anyone. As a bonus, you might even get a few laughs.
3. Move the conversation offline.
“Your digital footprint is permanent. Be cautious of what you share because you never know who will see it or how it will harm you.”
We’ve all heard this sentiment, but it’s true. As our friend Lauren, 18, says, “If it’s something that you wouldn’t want people to see, don’t post it and don’t text it.” Although texting can be more convenient, talking face-to-face or on the phone decreases drama, minimizes potential harm, and leads to better problem-solving.
Jessica recalls a time when one friend betrayed another by spreading mean gossip. Rather than work through the problem in person, they started a group chat. The tension escalated as everyone took sides. Jessica eventually took charge and suggested her two friends take their disagreement offline. As she pointed out to them, they’d have a much easier time resolving the issue if they could read each other’s expressions and body language. And by waiting until the next day, they’d also have a chance to cool down and gather their thoughts.
4. Don’t respond at all.
When friends are arguing, it can be tempting to take sides or play the role of mediator, but that usually exacerbates the situation.
If you don’t feel capable of lightening the mood with humor or leaving a conversation entirely, we recommend silence. Our friend Sophie, 15, is a frequent participant in a group chat that often gets contentious. When the fighting starts, she refrains from engaging. As she notes, group chats typically have multiple participants, and her absence tends to go unnoticed. And as Jessica adds, “Even if you had been talking, you don’t have to continue talking. Just don’t reply.”
This approach takes some self-restraint, but drastically cuts down on social drama.
5. Practice makes perfect.
Along those lines, don’t despair if you haven’t perfected the art of group chat extraction.
We’ve found it much easier to assert our needs in high school than we did in middle school. We’ve also found that kids tend to become kinder, more civil and more mature as they get older.
Our friend John, 18, recalls how bad it felt when he was excluded from a group chat back in middle school. Now that he’s a senior in high school, he says his group chats are so inclusive, it’s ridiculous. As he told us, “It actually has gotten kind of awkward because not everyone in them is friends with everyone else, but we make a very conscious effort to make sure no one is excluded.”
*Some names and details have been changed to protect our friends’ privacy