My kids are 12 and 14, and they have their own cell phones. The deal around here is that when you go to middle school, you get a cell phone. When you turn 13, you get limited and monitored access to social media. Your phone is always subject to being monitored by mom or dad. Any text message or social media post is fair game. If we find something we don't like, then there are consequences ranging from losing access to social media to losing your phone entirely.
In the past few months, we've encountered a few situations where social media and texting have caused some hurt, anger and frustration in our house. And I've boiled it down to a common factor: lack of respect.
We talk a lot about respect in our house. Most of the rules we have are based on the idea that other people deserve respect. But those little devices in our kids' hands make it easy to forget that concept. It's easy to say things we don't mean when we don't have to look the other person in the eye. It's easy to ignore someone when they aren't standing right there. Minor disagreements turn into major ones when teens try to resolve them via text because it's impossible to determine intent or tone in a text message.
I've been working with my girls to help them understand that texting and social media are a tool of communication but not the only tool. And here are some of the do's and don'ts I'm trying to impart.
1. Don't say anything in a text or social media post that you wouldn't say to a person's face. Just because it's digital, doesn't make your words any less hurtful.
2. If you're having a disagreement, request that you get together to talk it out. It is almost impossible to successfully resolve a disagreement via text or social media because you're missing key clues to what the other person really means. You can't see facial expressions. You can't hear tone of voice. When emotions are already high, those nonverbal cues are important.
3. Never end a relationship via text. This seems to be the choice du jour of teens today. Ending a relationship via text is easy. You don't have to deal with any of the other person's emotions, and you don't have to have a conversation. But it is incredibly hurtful. Ending a relationship via text hurts in ways that doing it face to face does not because to text a breakup tells the other person that you don't value them or the relationship you had enough to extend the common courtesy of a face-to-face conversation. Ending a relationship is hard -- and it should be -- but it should be done in a way that doesn't devalue the other person. A text breakup does just that. Short of an abusive relationship (in which case there are a whole host of other issues involved), a relationship should never be ended via text.
4. Think about whether what you're posting is going to hurt someone else's feelings. My older daughter's friends went through a stage where they posted those memes where you tag different friends for different things -- best friend, tallest friend, goofiest friend, etc. Someone always got left out or was upset about what they had been tagged as. Nothing good comes from memes and comments that ask you to choose among your friends. It's best to just avoid those things altogether.
5. Use text and social media to praise your friends and share fun conversations. Use it to figure out your homework or make plans for the weekend. Text and social media are a great tool for communicating with others for simple things. They are a great way to stay in touch when life gets really busy.
6. Don't post things that embarrass other people. Sometimes it's funny to post a silly picture or a funny quote from a friend. As long as everyone is in on the joke, it's fine. But if your friend specifically asks you not to post something, then don't. Don't use social media as a way to embarrass or get back at someone else.
7. Remember that whatever you post on social media is public. Your future college and future employers can see it. Don't post things that will come back to haunt you later on.
8. Use text and social media to be an encourager. Offer praise and encouragement through text and social media. It is a great forum for that.
9. Don't use social media and text to offer criticism. Criticism and correction should always be offered face to face. It's hard to correct someone in love via text.
10. Don't let social media and text become a replacement for face-to-face relationships. There's only so much interaction that can take place via text and social media. You still need to get out of the house and hang out with your friends together. And when you're together, put the phones away.
In this digital world, it can be hard to keep up with what our kids are doing on their phones. The key to teaching them how to be responsible with text and social media is to remind them to treat each other with love and respect. If our kids remember that they are called to "love one another" at all times -- even when texting and using social media -- they will be on the road to successfully navigating this digital world.