Last year, my family took a cruise for spring break. Because the ship did not have free Wi-Fi, my 12-year-old daughter spent seven days sans phone without complaint. As we disembarked, I handed her iPhone over, and she excitedly powered it on.
While we stood in line to go through customs, I heard her exclaim, “Wow, it just won’t stop!”
Tweens and texting
I peered over her shoulder and noticed text messages appearing like rapid fire. The end count was north of 1,500 messages from two different group chats.
I was shocked. My daughter had only had her phone for a few months, and while I monitored it, I found most of the messages were innocuous. Right before we left, some friends added her to two groups where 10 to 15 girls seemed to be texting non-stop.
More surprising than the sheer volume of the messages, however, was the tone of the communication. Although not directed at her, there seemed to be several disagreements and mean-spirited comments.
I started questioning whether this mode of communication was right for my tween.
The Group Text Social Scene
“In comparison to other forms of social media, texting is pretty safe, but that doesn’t mean parents should back off entirely,” says Phyllis Fagell, licensed clinical professional counselor at Washington, D.C.-based Sheridan School and author of the forthcoming Middle School Matters. “Middle schoolers are doing the same stuff in text chains that they’re doing in the cafeteria, a sleepover, or in the hallways. They may be trading gossip for status or making someone else feel crappy—or they may be making plans or talking about a soccer game.”
Fagell has seen kids as young as 8 texting, and she believes younger kids are too immature for this form of communication. “By middle school, I think it’s fine to let kids text as long as parents stay involved,” says Fagell.
Texting now occupies a key place in the middle school social scene, and Fagell cautions against completely banning it to protect kids. “At an age when kids are asserting their place in the pack and figuring out their identity, they’re going to try out some mean behaviors,” she says. “But they’re going to do that in person too, and if you don’t let them text, they’re going to feel socially isolated. And texting isn’t just a vehicle for gossip or cruelty—it’s often used to lift each other up or check in about homework.”
When Texts Turn Ugly
What’s a parent to do when a group text goes off the rails? Whether it’s your kid or someone else’s who has made mistakes, consider this an opportunity to teach your tween how to handle this and other tricky social situations.
“Teach your tweens not to be reactive. If their heart rate goes up or they feel angry, encourage your child to step away from their device and don’t engage,” says Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., founder of the blog Raising Digital Natives and author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. “Sometimes kids don’t recognize drama as it’s unfolding, so parents need to teach them how to refrain from reacting. When possible, tweens should address their peers face-to-face.”
Heitner encourages more mentoring than monitoring of text messages. Instead of just scanning for inappropriate content, parents should use digital communication as an opportunity to teach some basic social skills. For example, “Tension can develop from something as minor as an unanswered text,” she says. “Tweens’ feelings can get hurt quickly, so they need to understand that every text may not get answered immediately for a variety of reasons, and that they need to be patient with their friends.”
Sometimes behavior occurs in a text thread that may make others uncomfortable, such as name-calling, swearing, or bullying. Heitner advises that tweens should always feel okay to exit out of a group text. “Make sure your child has an out if they are uncomfortable, such as saying that their dad reads all their texts or another excuse,” she says. “If bullying is happening, they should not address it in the group, and instead communicate directly with individuals.”
If group texting is stressing you out as a parent, Heitner offers some hope. “Group texts are often for new users, particularly fifth and sixth graders. By eighth or ninth grade, many teens only use group texts to make plans or for team communication.”