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When Texting Goes Wrong: Helping Kids Repair and Resolve Issues

Devorah is the founder and director of Raising Digital Natives, a resource for parents and schools seeking advice on how help children thrive in a world of digital connectedness.

Educators and parents tend to focus on the prevention side of digital citizenship. But what happens when something goes wrong? When a misstep leads to a damaged relationship?

In my student workshops, I ask kids to brainstorm about how to correct such a mistake. A common problem is an "overshare," where they have shared something too personal about themselves. Another is when your child shares a friend's good news—or even a secret.

They know that they can’t put the overshare or secret “back in the box,” but kids' instincts are to try to limit the damage. Quickly. In these workshops, they suggest taking down the offending post, deleting the picture, and apologizing, or at least letting people know that it was a mistake.

But how can they make it right? In many settings, from youth groups to religious schools to public schools, I hear other proposed solutions that are troublesome. For instance, many kids will try to "spread some lies" to cover the truth they've shared. Another is allowing for revenge: "I'll let my friend spread a rumor about me," for example. Embroiled in a social error, kids feel an urgency to take further steps to fix it "for good," all at once.

These problem-solving techniques came from 5th and 6th graders who are just learning how to negotiate complicated social relationships. Many of these kids are just getting their first communication device, which adds another layer of complexity to the equation. It is important to look at where these kids are developmentally when we consider getting them a smartphone.

We have to help kids understand that rumors, lies, and revenge strategies just exacerbate the situation. Kids are focused on the immediate issue, and often have trouble seeing the larger picture. Sometimes when the parameters of trust in a relationship change, it takes time to fix—and your child can actually make it worse by trying to fix it in one gesture.

What can you do to help?

Adults can model the concept of repair for children. The best way is to offer a personal story of a communication gone wrong and how you solved it. For example, this one came from a parent at one of my workshops:

"I thought everyone knew Aunt Marcy was expecting a baby and so I said something about it on Facebook. She had every right to be mad at me—it wasn't my news to share. I should have checked with her about how public her news was before I assumed. I called her to apologize — I feel really bad about it, but we had a good conversation and I certainly won't do something like that ever again.”

We all make mistakes. Kids need to see that relationships are complex, even for adults. It's important for them to see how to manage a mistake—with honesty, empathy, and patience.

Patience is the toughest thing to teach to our digital natives. Speed of communication is a virtue in today's world, but it heightens the sense of urgency. Kids feel like they have to resolve things quickly, which we can understand. No one wants to feels the stress of a relationship that's struggling. But repair is not always fast. It can take time. Teach your kids that it's OK to take time and gain perspective.

This is an opportunity to teach them good life skills in general. Owning up to your missteps, apologizing earnestly, and returning to "being a good friend" is the best way to move past any issue. And of course, learning how to avoid such a misstep in the future. Learning is a gift!

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.

Dr. Devorah Heitner is the founder and director of Raising Digital Natives, a resource for parents and schools seeking advice on how help children thrive in a world of digital connectedness. An experienced speaker, workshop leader, and consultant, Dr. Heitner serves as a professional development resource for schools wishing to cultivate a culture of responsible digital citizenship. She works directly with parents and families, and is currently writing a handbook for parents, tentatively titled, “Raising Your Digital Native.” Dr Heitner has a PhD in Media/Technology and Society from Northwestern University and is the founder and director of Raising Digital Natives. For more info, please see: www.raisingdigitalnatives.com.


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