Donna Moss, LCSW-R is a skilled adolescent therapist who writes about the Internet and on other issues in mental health. I hope you enjoy her three part series on teens in the texting era. We are honored with her contribution. Perhaps, you'll text someone about it.

                                    To learn more visit: www.donnacmoss.com.

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Parent's Guide to Teen Texting: With the wonders of modern information technology we can explore vistas of our world unheard of just a generation ago. As an early adopter, I maintained for a long time that our children’s world had not changed for the worse; it just changed. Back in the day kids still got in trouble in all kinds of creative ways.

The new ways are just different.

But as a therapist specializing in teens and young adults, I began to see other, darker trends emerging that were not so nostalgic. I began to see that relationship conflicts had all new rules. This is part one of a three part series on what I’ve gleaned. Consider it a parent’s guide to teen texting.

Today’s post covers two simple – and not so simple – terms, dating and talking. Both are influenced by texting and both concepts are not what we adults remember them to be.

Dating Redefined: I am sure that you’ve read a lot about the “hook-up” culture. For starters, this needs to be defined. As a therapist to teens, if someone says “I hooked-up” you are burdened with asking, (“all the way?”). It is not always clear if a hook-up is casual sex (intercourse) or just making out (kissing).

Because of the hook-up culture, there are fewer and fewer actual “dates.” While it’s assumed by some that this is preferable for both boys and girls, thereby giving girls more freedom, I’ve heard unequivocally from teen and young adult girls that this is not the case. They hate it. Being texted that you might meet/hook-up later also means you might not.

We now have a technology that actually encourages narcissistic behavior. Imagine the normal narcissism of adolescence mixed with email or texting; no voice to respond to, or eyes to see you. Just, inconvenient words floating in cyberspace.

In most circles, a time and a place and a meeting still matter. I would imagine that you can’t tell your boss, for example, “I might text you later if I can make our appointment.”

For girls, being stood up continues to burn, but further, creates a new level of confusion. Not only do they have to figure out if the boy likes them casually, for sex, or friendship, but also if he forgot to learn how to tell time in 2nd grade. The new standard or lack thereof causes bruising insecurity for girls (and boys) who are regularly stood up, without even the courtesy of a text. For the adults I know, texting is more likely reserved for “I’m running late; leave dinner out.”

Texting & Avoidance: The worst scenario for both girls and boys is silence. NO ANSWER.

That is, you have “plans” however casual, and then the person fails to respond for hours, during which time you basically go crazy with wonder, worry and then aggravation. There is, in essence, no way to interpret a stone wall of silence.

So to review, an adult texting argument no doubt can be brutal, starving the relationship of important connections, but one can always get out of it by saying, “let’s discuss face to face.” In teens, this step is often missing. Avoidance reigns; and too much is left hanging.

The Textationship: The term “textationship” has been coined, referring to relationships based primarily on texts and not face-to-face interactions , not even phone calls! This may seem strange to a parent, but it may be routine for your teen.

A survey conducted by TextPlus revealed that 58% of teens would ask someone on a date by texting.

  • Example: Tori, is a stunning young woman age 19 who elected to leave a private college to live at home and attend local community college instead. She said the partying at her first school was insane. Living off campus at home presented a challenge in meeting people. Soon however, several boys in her classes began to ask Tori out. In three separate incidents they failed to show up. In addition, one broke up via text after three dates. It was so upsetting that Tori experienced a relapse of an eating disorder after she tried to phone the guy, whom she slept with at his college dorm, and received no word back. Sadly, this story is not unique in our disposable culture. Dealing with conflict by avoiding communication is commonplace.

If abandonment is so casual, who would want to connect?

Talking Redefined: This concept seems pretty straight forward, no? Everyone understands what it means to talk to someone. In today’s texting world, it’s not so simple.

When a client says, “I’m taking to him/her” I have found that I must ask for clarification in order to avoid ambiguity. Does that mean the traditional, “I’m taking to him (face to face)” or I’m sometimes IMing and sometimes chatting and sometimes texting with him? Or, it may really mean that “I’m talking to him online but I have never met him.”

Many times I’ve been surprised to discover that a teen was “talking” to a person that they’ve never met in person. Adults do this in business or on online dating sites, but teens can talk to a stranger quite casually. And, often, they are not mindful of the dangers.

The definition of “talking” has changed radically; and there’s no going back.

The average teen sends close to 3 000 texts a month. Think about it for a minute, and you'll get a sense of how their world is changing. And, if everyone is reachable, all the time, where is the room for quiet personal time with yourself? Or, for that matter, a moment of privacy?

We now know that the lines between online relationships and real time ones are forever blurred. I first encountered this as the Director of Policy and Health Community at iVillage.com in 1999, the burgeoning days of the World Wide Web. People formed powerful and lasting relationships online, literally working together without ever having met, all day and night. We got emails from our boss in Pennsylvania typically at 2am with the week’s assignments. We had never met her. We did notice something else about her: she never slept, and she assumed you didn’t either.

However, for teenagers, to call that a “relationship” when they have not had the experience of some of what we might characterize as the foundations, again causes steady confusion. “What are we to each other? When will we meet? Do I really know who you are?” And, naturally there are safety issues.

As the person who wrote the first online safety manual for children, at Disney.com, I should know.

  • Make sure your kids never share personal information! “Talking” with someone you don’t know raises other potential red flags, not only of date rape, to name one example. On one hand it gives you a sense of freedom/anonymity from shyness and poor body image/self-esteem, but it also requires that if you ever do ever meet, you have no idea what you’re getting into. (I have seen this with adults in therapy too).
  • Assuming that the person is relatively stable is a big assumption. There are obvious problems with not having seen a person except by texting or online. It’s not just that he can be ugly or demanding, but more urgently, he can be dangerous or manipulative.

Take Home Message: Our teens are operating in a new landscape. Texting and online communication redefines protocols that parents and professionals take for granted. Dating and talking seem to be innocuous words, but they have a different meaning for our kids and the teens we work with.

At the end of the day, many people – including teens - want to meet. An online connection can lead to face to face meetings that are often disappointing and sometimes, even dangerous. Navigating the communication transition from online to offline is hazardous for inexperienced teens. Not just, “he’s taller than I expected,” but also, “when we “talk” online he’s not as demanding, angry, depressed, anxious,” fill in the blank…

There is a place for experimentation with relationships during the teen years. That’s normal.

Our kids need to develop a more solid sense of who they are and what they will become. We adults remember having crushes and navigating relationships. But we weren’t exposed to so much overt sex and a lack of mutual accountability when we were young. It’s not easy for our kids.

Just as in the old days, teens need to grow. It’s just that the language they use, and the world they live in is more disposable and hazardous. Our job is to be there for them.

It works best when we know what they are talking about.

Some staggering statistics about Bullying & Sexting

  • 55% of teens have given out personal info to someone they don’t know, including photos and physical descriptions
  • 29% of teens have posted mean info, embarrassing photos or spread rumors about someone
  • 29% have been stalked or contacted by a stranger or someone they don’t know
  • 24% have had private or embarrassing info made public without their permission
  • 22% have been cyberpranked
  • 56% of teens say they have been the target of some type of online harassment
  • 15% percent of the young people surveyed say they have sent nude photos or videos of themselves
  • 21% say they've received nude photos or videos from others. About half of those involved say they felt pressured to do so
  • 41% have experienced some form of digital dating abuse — including checking in multiple times a day, reading messages without permission, pressuring others to respond to messages or spreading rumors

Resources

• Social Media and Young Adults, Feb. 2010, Pew Internet & American Life Project

• Global Insights Into Family Life Online, June 2010, Norton/Symantec & StrategyOne

• Teen/Mom Internet Safety Survey, Oct. 2008, McAfee & Harris Interactive

• Facebook Parental Controls Review (http://facebook-parental-controlsreview.toptenreviews.com/30-statistics-...)

• The 2011 AP-MTV DIGITAL ABUSE STUDY (http://www.athinline.org/pdfs/MTVAP_2011_Research_Study-Exec_Summary.pdf)

• CNN (http:/www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/mobile/08/16/pew.cell.phone.report.gahran/index.ht...)

• PlayBeSeen.com

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