“Are you kidding!? Everyone would think we were in love or something!”
That’s the response I got when I asked a group of middle school girls why they don’t talk to guys in their class. The interesting part was that they had each just confessed to IMing those same guys on a regular basis! There is something about Facebook Instant Messenger that allows students to build awkward relationships in ways that allow those relationships to grow, hidden away from the judging eyes of their peers and the information-seeking eyes of their well-meaning parents. Instant Messenger gives students that safe and private space they need to learn how to relate to people who are different than them.
I’ll be honest. It is easy to focus on the negative aspect of our kids’ technology. Maybe that’s because our natural tendency is to distrust things we don’t fully understand. However, one of the most promising things I found in the focus groups that were part of my initial research was that IM has ALOT of positive attributes, one of the most important being the way it lets kids talk with each other outside of their normal social constraints. The most notable examples I found involved the way 6th and 7th graders used IM to learn how to communicate with friends of the opposite sex.
Try this. Put yourself back into your junior high shoes and try to imagine the most awkward situation you can think of. It undoubtedly has something to do with a cute girl or cute guy you were trying hard to impress. Something very strange happens in about 5th or 6th grade. Boys and girls who have been friends for years suddenly don’t know how to talk with each other. It is no longer “cool” to hang out together. Suddenly innocent looks or comments have huge social implications.
Then along comes Instant Messenger. The fun and easy technology helps students keep those cross-gender relationships going. No one from their social group can see their conversations so they are able to relax and figure out how to relate to someone of the opposite sex. Although I haven’t seen many studies dealing with the topic, my guess is that kids talk ALOT with friends of the opposite sex. Sure, some of it might be flirting and some of it might be romantic, but much of it is just plain, old relationship building. IM really can help our kids develop relationship skills in ways that are not subjected to the very harsh and public rules you and I were subjected to when we were first trying to figure out how relate with someone of the opposite sex.
So, next time you catch your son or daughter IMing or e-mailing someone of the opposite sex, don’t get too worried. They might just be building some stealthy, healthy relationships.