I recently met a teen who had just broken up with her boyfriend. They go to the same school and have the same circle of friends.  For her, the break up was a tough choice, but she didn’t feel like they had a connection any longer. Instead of calling him or having the conversation to end the relationship face to face, she tweeted the break up. For me, this felt impersonal but for this teen, a tweet was just an alternative mode of communication that was convenient and effective.

In this day and age, we spend so little time actually communicating face to face. Our pace is fast: constantly on the go and instantly responding to the latest text, chat, or instant message. If we send a message and don’t receive an instant response there is concern that we’re not valued, that the person may be upset at us, or worry that something is wrong. What does this instant communication and ongoing use of social media mean for teens and their social development? The answer: we don’t really know. But we do have examples from the past.

A revolution in communication has happened before. Consider the telephone. When it made its debut, similar concerns arose that I hear from parents today: This method of communication feels impersonal; If I can’t see them, how do I know if I’m communicating effectively? Will this type of communication lead to risky behavior? Will my child know how to have a conversation face to face?

Technology has launched an entire new way to communicate. Instead of just hearing a voice, I can video chat. Instead of writing a letter, I can send an instant message complete with photos. It’s amazing! Of course there are always drawbacks. Reading text is different than seeing a person and noticing their body language. Emotions are difficult to imply just by reading words and video chats may be cut off by poor reception.

So as parents who may not be digital natives, what lessons can we share with our teens about the value of face to face conversations, especially when managing difficult conversations (such as a break up)?

  1. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you prefer a face to face or phone conversation if receiving the same news? How would you feel if your received this communication in a tweet?
  2. Consider the implications of the message. Could a picture be shared that would embarrass you? Would you be ok with your grandma reading the instant message? Think before you hit send as technology allows for easy spread of communication, even if you wanted it to remain private.
  3. Pause before you tweet/post/comment/text. My parents used to say ‘sleep on it’ when I needed to convey important information, but wasn’t sure exactly how to get my message across. For teens (and adults) today, waiting an entire day before responding might feel like an eternity, but encouraging teens to wait even 30 minutes before sending a message may allow them to think through what they really want to say, the implications of the message, and the format they want to use. Perhaps instead of sending a tweet to break up, they decide a phone call would be more respectful.