Flaming Text Messages: Thumb-centered Conflict Management

It’s the ultimate way to tell someone off.  You send them a nasty text, then turn off your phone. That’ll show them!  You think thats just a snotty way immature middle school students use cell phones?  Guess again.  My college students say thats how many of their friends solve conflicts.  Keep in mind, these are 18-21 year olds!

According to my students, text messaging allows people to be mean in a whole new way. There’s something about the text-based environment that frees users to act in ways that they would never think of if they had to actually look the person in the eyes.  In fact, research involving online communication suggests that as many as 58% of teens have had someone say something mean to them online.  The really disturbing part is that 54% said they have said something mean to someone else.  That means even our sweet, mature, kind children are able to find their mean voice when it comes to cyberspace.

This disinhibition effect seems particularly tricky when it comes to text messaging.  It is difficult to stop messages from coming into a cell phone unless the user blocks all text messages.  There have been reports of “text wars” where teens gang up on an individual and send thousands of vulgar text messages, often resulting in large cell phone bills. At the very least, texting seems to happen on a faster and less controlled fashion than IM conversations based on a home computer. Since the phone is right there when someone gets upset, it is easy to send a flaming message without thinking through how that might affect the other person.

So how do we help our kids manage conflicts more effectively at the same time they are using the technology when they are away from home and away from our prying eyes? It seems the only thing to do is talk to them.  By training them to better handle negative emotions and how to deal with others who flame or bully them, we are helping them develop important interpersonal skills for a high-tech age.  For instance, encourage your child to never send a text or e-mail when they are upset.  Flaming is a poor way to deal with conflicts and it is a bad habit that can follow them into adulthood. Second, have your child save their text messages–especially ones that may be abusive.  Most research suggests kids are very hesitant to tell on other kids who misuse technology.  Talk with your child about how important it is to tell you if something comes up, assuring them you won’t automatically take away their cell phone.  Finally, when you see problems come up between your child and his or her friends, consider how technology may be making things worse. Challenge your child to deal with conflict face toface, in a way that forces each person to take responsibility for their actions.

Solving conflict in this high-tech era requires an extra set of interpersonal skills. If your child is using a cell phone, you may want to sit down and have a chat.  By teaching our kids how they can use their thumbs in positive ways, we can equip them for a future that successfully integrates both technology and conflict.

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