Online messaging is a primary way preteens communicate — and sometimes the words hurt.
As Robert Fulghum provocatively pointed out in his 1989 classic, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, "Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts. Ah, the pen — or, more likely the keystroke — is still mightier than the sword, it seems.
Thanks to instant messaging, cell phone texting, and social networking sites, the way teens and tweens communicate is far different from what it was even 5 years ago. Messaging is big and kids have their own unique vocabulary, but it's not the kind that impresses college enrollment officers. Children commonly use acronyms such as POS (parent over the shoulder) or TPS (that's pretty stupid); words are abbreviated, grammar is ignored, and numbers may be substituted for letters, making it difficult for the uninformed to decipher messages. Most important, online communication is a primary vehicle for socializing with friends, says Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Fort Lauderdale and founder of NewsforParents.org. "On the one hand, it exposes kids to technology, which is a good thing," she says. "But the down side is how distanced they become from face-to-face interactions." Texting, IM and sites like MySpace also make it faster and easier to spread vicious gossip.
Online there's no eye contact or ability to read social cues, or even to develop interpersonal intimacy. "Online messages are much more likely to be misinterpreted and kids are more likely to 'say' things that they wouldn't say in person or on the phone," says Glasser. “They tend to be bolder and more assertive because there's a certain anonymity associated with being in front of a screen, versus in front of a person.”
Glasser cautions parents to be on the lookout for "cyber bullying" and other troubling exchanges, such as participation in online chat rooms. Obviously you don't want your child to be the victim of online bullying, nor do you want her doing it to someone else. Children need to be taught about the power of words and how they can be used to hurt others. "It’s important to monitor your child's online activities," says Glasser. "Put your computer in a public space, like the kitchen or family room, where you can keep an eye on the screen — not a bedroom."