Parenting Perspective: Teen Online Arguments

May 7, 2010 7:11:44 AM PDT
It's hard to dispute the usefulness of technology when it comes to your kids. Thanks to cell phones, never before have parents been in such close contact with their busy teenagers, as they shuttle between friends' houses, after school activities, and jobs. And computers put kids in touch with information, including educational material, in a way that was not previously possible. What's more, kids these days take to this technology quickly and easily (more easily, anyway, than those of us who can still remember hoarding quarters for the payphone). Unless you've already experienced it, you'll be amazed, for example, at how quickly that cell phone you give your kid morphs into something of a human organ, as it gloms semi-permanently onto their ear.

The same goes for computer literacy. When I was a kid, they had to drag me kicking and screaming to typing class, where I was destined to produce no better than "C" work. Nowadays, typing is a social skill which even the least studious teenager masters faster than you can figure out what lol, (:, and LMAO!!! mean.

But as a parent, it doesn't take long to recognize that these new technologies have positive AND negative aspects. On the plus side, text messaging (along with services like AOL Instant Messaging and Facebook), allows kids to have much closer and immediate relationships with their friends than they might otherwise enjoy. This can be nurturing.

In the case of relationships of the heart, I can't tell you how much I would've loved to have been able to break the ice with girls through the thoughtful, less stressful medium of writing, versus the white-knuckle, heart-stopping "old fashioned" necessity of actually opening my mouth and forcing words to pass through the air and into a girl's ear.

Practice as I did, that almost never went well.

My kids, however, have the luxury of establishing an interest in someone through less threatening and often witty online interplay, that gives each party a chance to think over the proposition without interference from a cracking voice, bumbling verbalization, or worse, the abruptly erupting anti-dating zit (which used to have a nasty way of presenting itself, as I recall, roughly two-point-three seconds prior to any face-to-face meeting with even the most remote this-could-lead-to-a-date implications).

Text messages, by their brief nature, also limit the amount of damage a kid can do by limiting the chance of saying the wrong thing. Teen relationships still fall apart at roughly the same rate as always, it appears to me, but the way teens communicate these days can, to some degree, lessen the angst and smooth the process.

But on the negative side, text messaging and social networking services also have the ability to magnify problems that tend to crop up between friends or classmates, and blow them out of all reasonable proportion. In the old days, if someone looked at you the wrong way, or said something you didn't like, you'd be steamed about it, for sure. But eventually, night would fall and you'd have to sleep on the unpleasantness for several hours. As we all learn eventually, this time of reflection and removal from the problem usually provides a different perspective. In short, what seems like a monumental, or even unforgivable breach at one moment, almost never seems quite as egregious when given a chance to go from a boil to a simmer. The problem with today's technology is that it often reduces or even removes any such buffering period.

Teenagers are connected to their phones and their computers almost constantly, and the more accustomed they become to this arrangement, the harder it is to convince them to disconnect every now and then. Sometimes, the consequences are relatively banal: instead of doing homework, they're gabbing with their friends. But in more alarming episodes, it means a lunch room argument or a name-calling spat in the afternoon that's in need of a respite, instead is given the opportunity to escalate into something far more dramatic than it was likely to have become otherwise.

Another thing I've observed about teenagers is that disagreements, even of a relatively minor nature, can be taken up with incredible passion and zeal. This is, I think, a component in the lesson disagreements teach us. We have to learn how to take stands, think through serious problems and defend our positions; as a teenager, whose expertise in this area is still developing, championing a position is an important step. The problem with non-stop, on-line intercourse in such matters, is that the cooling-off period, also a critical component of the lesson, is reduced or eliminated. The results can be a prolonged outcome involving sleepless nights, and a longer than natural case of the blues, not to mention all the other bad things that can happen when two or more people aren't getting along.

My advice would be to tread lightly into the computer and cell phone experience with your kids. Introduce them to it, but talk about the pitfalls of online communication up front. Whether or not you bought the phone, or the computer, feel empowered as a parent to limit the hours per day that this sort of activity is allowed. And, of course, keep talking to your kids about what's going on with their friends. If you can, become informed of the latest dramas, and stay interested. Try not to be dismissive of what may seem like insignificant arguments going on online. And think about taking possession of phone/computer use at night. We once caught one of our high school aged kids busily texting classmates after midnight on a school night over an online drama, which simply shouldn't happen.

Computers, Facebook, chat rooms, and all the other information highways, side streets and back alleys your teenagers are bound to eventually travel are pocked with all sorts of other well-documented pitfalls, from predators to destructive ideologies, and all of them with designs on impressionable kids. So, there have always been plenty of reasons for parents to keep an eye on what their teenagers are doing with their cyber-time. But teaching them in advance of the natural, healthy progression of a dispute, and how that can easily become distorted by hammering away at the issue for hours online, may make it easier to pull the plug on these arguments when they eventually come up. Or better yet, maybe your kid will come to this valuable conclusion themselves, and pull the plug on their own when their online arguments get too hot.

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