Group texts are the new cliques for teens and tweens

 mashable.com  11/10/2018 12:00:00 PM   Beth Swanson

Welcome to Small Humans, an ongoing series at Mashable that looks at how to take care of – and deal with – the kids in your life. Because Dr. Spock is nice and all, but it’s 2018 and we have the entire internet to contend with.

Your kids aren’t allowed to use Snapchat, you monitor their Insta DMs (and their finsta), and they’ve held off on a Facebook account for now. But there’s another option that has many of the same problematic dynamics as the services above and no barrier to entry. In fact, you probably make your kids use it all the time: the group text.

Group texts are the 21st century version of congregating in front of a middle school locker. Kids carry this communication in their pocket and into their homes. At their best, group texts offer a sense of community and acceptance, enhancing social connections and forging friendships. At their worst, they provide one more avenue for drama, exclusion and some downright nasty comments. 

While discussions about social media use and teens are common, it’s inclusion in group texts that carry weight with my 13-year-old, and exclusion that causes heartache. In our house, the text alerts start at 6:24 am, every school day. Outside of school hours, when the kids have to keep their phones in their lockers, it’s a near-constant string of texts, discussing everything from homework to soccer practice, the funny thing a teacher said to why a comment – or a person – was annoying.

Sometimes, it’s a genuine misunderstanding, but other times the intent is clear.

Both parents and kids need to develop skills to deal with this new version of social interaction. Group texts, like all written communication, function differently than an eye-to-eye conversation, and understanding those differences can help kids navigate tricky texting territory. The structure of a group chat, the pressure to comment (and therefore stay in the group) and the lack of nonverbal communication are things families need to consider as tweens transition to holding most conversations over text. 

Missing cues

Text conversations occur in a flat hierarchy, something that makes deeper conversations and understanding difficult,  says Dr. Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World and the blog Raising Digital Natives. It’s like having a conversation where everyone shouts the answers and the responses are out of sync. 

“You don’t want to be left out, but at the same time, it’s kind of a disorganized way to talk,” she says. “You’re not going to have a really deep talk in terms of group texts.”

Help your child realize that some of the nuance, body language and expression are missing. Humor and sarcasm are often lost as well, and teens need to learn to either give a friend the benefit of the doubt, or ask how a text was intended.

“It’s not always clear if someone is being mean on purpose or not, particularly if it seems out of character based on what you know of the person,” O’Rourke says. 

Not quite bullying

While cyberbullying is well documented, and kids are learning in school and at home how to screenshot and report cyberbullying, discussions about the kind of borderline-mean behavior parents are seeing over text are less common. Just like real life, behavior in a group text can veer between friendly and unkind, leaving a tween feeling hurt over a text. 

“First off, teens are often mean to one another even if they are friends. Some of this is banter, some of it is genuinely a person being mean. Social life can be a tumultuous place,” says Dr. Danny O’Rouke, a clinical psychologist at the Evidenced Based Treatment Centers of Seattle and author of the blog Knowing Anxiety.

Tweens have to decide what a text might mean, and respond to an entire group of friends, while wondering where they fit in the social hierarchy. Sometimes, it’s a genuine misunderstanding, but other times the intent is clear. 

“People use the term relational aggression, or people trying to cement their status. Being in the group text is one way to show your status, but then being mean or talking about people that you’re potentially excluding from the group text would be another way that kids might try to reinforce their status,” says Heitner. “Another thing someone might do is being mean, but in a way that’s subtle enough…so if you’re being mean you might not want to be overly mean and call somebody names or something like that.” 

As a parent, seeing snarky comments in text form, I sometimes wonder if my daughter should drop out of a group text, but suggesting she leave the chat is just like asking her to ditch her friends IRL. 

“If it’s kind of back-and-forth, trying to show who’s boss in a sense, or who has the most friends, or who’s the most desired, or who’s the most pretty, but there’s a little bit of power going on for both kids or all of the kids,” Heitner says. “And boys and girls both do it. It plays out a little differently with boys, but it’s not something that just girls do.”

Prepare to be the excuse

What if, even given all this, a text does go too far? Or what if your kid just dislikes the dynamic, something I’ve seen play out in my own home several times now. Parents can act as a backstop, a means of halting conversations that make your tween uncomfortable. 

“If kids are talking smack about another kid or a teacher, you could just say you guys are not being nice and my parents look at my phone sometimes and I’ll get in trouble, I don’t want to be part of this,” Heitner says.

For now, I’m encouraging my daughter to practice kindness, in group texts and real life. I’m suggesting deeper conversations, and a social life face-to-face, especially in situations where feelings can get hurt. 

The challenge lies in bridging the gap between my hope for in-person interaction and her preference for conversations both by text, and in a form that includes all her friends.

“I would definitely encourage teens and parents to consider that their social network should be as much in-person as possible,” O’Rourke says.

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