Blackmail. Bullying. Cheating. Intimidation. Falsifying identities. Disparaging someone’s reputation. They read like a laundry list of activities you’d expect to find in a mob enforcer’s day planner.
But they actually happen every day in our elementary, middle and high schools, and even more so out of school, during summer vacation. Such acts are committed all the time by teenagers who text on their cellphones.
Problems associated with teens and texting aren’t new, but the severity of those issues is on the rise. All of the things teens do live — bully, have inappropriate sexual experiences, zone out in class, and get into trouble with the law — can be magnified, or even invented, by the technology of texting.
The social issue du jour among social workers and teens is text bullying, which is getting the lion’s share of attention for its damaging effects on teens. Intimidation, which is similar to bullying, and blackmail happens when teens imply — but stop just short of threatening — physical violence.
Another disturbing new trend in teen texting is blackmail, which occurs when students falsify their identity to encourage other students to cheat on tests, harm other students and even take drugs, as one Collier County seventh-grader reported. Teens who participate in text cheating take tests early in the day and text the answers to students taking the same test later on.
And in the texting world, bullying never lets up. The bully often texts at all hours of the day or night.
“Bullying tactics are expanding with technology, with texting and Facebook and MySpace,” said Kimberly Rodgers, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and registered play therapist supervisor (RPT-S) at Monarch Therapy in Naples. “It’s a safer and less intimidating way to bully people.”
Still, bullying via text messaging can have the same effect as face-to-face.
“Any kind of bullying — it could have a huge potential to harm someone’s self-esteem,” said Rodgers. “They can start defining themselves according to the criticism. For instance if a teen is bullied about his intelligence it could affect his study habits.”
Rodgers also suggests that bullying can amplify a common ideology that teenagers hold: to focus on the here and now.
“Bullying can affect ability to foresee success in the future,” said Rodgers. “(This includes) successes like going to college and having a family may seem further out of reach.”
Texting also is becoming a new outlet for teens to have pseudo-sex, known as “sexting.” Teens are simulating sex via texts, pictures and videos sent from their phones. As in bullying through text, sex via text can have emotional effects on teens.
After a teen relationship ends, sexting photos sent from one to the other can turn into blackmail or slander, and the repercussions can be traumatic. In Orlando and in Muscle Shoals, Ala., vengeful ex-boyfriends sent nude photos of teen girls to classmates, friends and even their families. One of the boys was prosecuted and his sentenced included registration as a sex offender. In another case, an 18-year-old woman in Ohio committed suicide after classroom taunts following the website posting of a nude photo she had sent a boyfriend. Several websites actually offer to post sexting photos from jilted lovers.
While texting magnifies bad behavior, it has opened doors for offending teens to get their comeuppance. Bullying via text is a traceable offense. It can bring about legal charges of harassment.
“Schools may not be able to do anything about it unless texting is happening during school hours,” said Rodgers. “But, legally, they could file harassment if they could prove it by texts.”
Bill Spano, Collier County Principal of Alternative School Programs, suggests parents be diligent in talking with children and be willing to back it up with consequences if students don’t abide by rules and guidelines.
“You want the attention of a teenager today, (you) take their phone,” says Spano. “Texting is how this generation communicates and it has made students more accountable for their comments.”
Spano also raises the concern that texting is hurting teens’ verbal communication skills.
Guidance counselors and teachers share his concern. The shorthand associated with modern technology isn’t grammatically correct or appropriate in formal communication. Christy Kutz is the director of student services for Collier County Schools. She advocates advance lessons on using technology in the same manner parents teach children to drive before giving them a car.
“As parents sometimes we forget to give kids training wheels for technology,” said Kutz. “We need to remind kids that informal communication, like texting, has its place, and that does not include homework assignments, report writing or job applications.”
“I sit at Starbucks and watch teens sitting together, getting little face-to-face interaction because they’re always texting,” said Rodgers. “It can impact their interpersonal skills.” Texting could limit teens’ ability to empathize and communicate in healthy ways with others, according to Rodgers. Socials skills such as eye contact, response to social cues and healthy communicative behavior can be hindered by texting.
“With texting you can miscommunicate things,” she said. “It’s not as clear as someone meeting face-to-face and it can impact teens’ self-confidence in healthy communication settings.”
Kutz says the importance of parents’ roles as overseers in how kids use the technology is often neglected. This may be because most parents are also dependent on texting. A quick text to Mom or Dad that it’s time to be picked up or confirming a teen caught the bus is much faster than calling.
When texting gets out of hand, such as with bullying, sexting or other infractions, experts say the answer is the same: Tell an adult.
“Text bullying, for example, is something as parents and educators we can’t ignore, and that’s part of the proactive conversation,” she says. “The message to children should always be to tell an adult.”
Some private schools in Collier County, such as Village School of Naples on Goodlette-Frank Road won’t allow students to bring phones to school.
Collier County public school students are allowed to have cellphones on school campuses, but students may not use cellphones during school hours. The Collier County School system code of conduct also states that all kinds of bullying, including “cyberstalking,” is a punishable offense.
Parents need to have their own code of conduct for their children’s cellphone use:
Tell your kids what your expectations of texting are and explain the proper use and purpose for giving them the technology.
If texting has already gotten out of hand, such as the child having been caught texting during class or bullying, make sure their texting behavior has consequences.
Support your child’s school in its efforts to keep technology from being a classroom distraction.
Model the behavior you impart on children. If you tell kids not to text at dinner, abide by the same rules.
Remember it is okay to set limits, including something simply like putting your cellphone on the counter during dinner.