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Teens on Twitter

I am not a tech-savvy girl. I got a cell phone years after most of my friends. I opened a Facebook page only after being nagged to post pictures of my kids, but I rarely use it. But I knew loads of my students used and loved the social media service Twitter, probably because their parents had invaded Facebook.

So I opened a Twitter account. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I “followed” journalists, writers and news outlets. A writer I love talked about how she was going to write her next draft “backwards,” whatever that means, and I pondered that for days. I learned about news stories before they hit the papers. And then I saw how my students use Twitter.

Here was the problem: Their version of Twitter is vastly different from mine.

If my Twitter blends creativity and news, theirs is Lord of the Flies with a country music soundtrack.
Here’s what I discovered:

Forget privacy. Unless they are protected, which few are, tweets are visible to anyone. Kids tweet about parties, frustrations and crushes without thinking about the consequences. This poses security concerns; if your daughter tweets about an upcoming family vacation, anyone can see that your home will be unoccupied for a long period of time. But more emotionally devastating is when teens tweet their innermost feelings and desires. “I can’t get over you.” “I’ve never felt so alone.” How do those teens feel if nobody “retweets,” “favorites,” “follows” or replies?

Slurs and swears. I can’t print many of the words I’ve seen on Twitter feeds. But what disturbs me most is when words are used to insult or disparage others. Instead of letting off steam by talking to a friend, kids do it on Twitter, where a fight happens publicly, in real time. “Slut,” or the newer version “smut,” is used by girls to break up relationships and boys to retaliate when dumped. And, thanks to retweets and replies, it spins like a storm.

Peer pressure. While peer pressure is always an issue, Twitter raises the stakes. Instead of whispered innuendoes and rumors, tweets are published for the world to see. A once-loved activity must be abandoned for fear of reprisal. These judgments are blatant and indelible and have more     potential than ever to narrow a life.

High school drama. It’s no surprise that Hollywood relationships come and go as fast as a photographer’s flash. But Twitter has placed high school relationships under a similarly bright spotlight. Everything—the crush, the sex, the love, the break up, the angry aftermath, the heartbreak—is tweeted, feeding voyeurism (for those who are silent readers) and drama (for those who love to provide commentary).

Mystery tweets. These popular tweets get attention by expressing anger or irritation without directly addressing the person concerned (and, again, with an audience). “I’m sick of this.” “I love when people don’t text me back when I see they’re on Twitter.” “I’m over you.” “Why are you all I think about?” “Stop playing games.” Rachel Simmons, bestselling author of Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl, talks about the harm of mysterious status updates on AIM and Facebook, and I think the same can be said for these tweets. They heighten the likelihood for drama, embarrassment and paranoia for all involved.

So what can parents do?

Get a Twitter account. Log onto www.twitter.com. Use this as an opportunity to talk with your child about online behavior. Begin by saying that you’ve heard interesting things about the social media site and you want to check it out. Treat her as an expert. Ask who she recommends that you follow. Encourage her to follow you. What does she see that she admires? Remind her that colleges and future employers will see her tweets. There are plenty of stories of colleges rescinding their acceptances after an offensive Facebook post. Make online media a regular conversation topic.

Learn the lingo. “Home” is the live feed of the tweets of the people you decide to “follow.” “@Connect” is where you will see the list of people who follow or “retweet” you. “#Discover” is where you find the names of people you may wish to follow as many use their real names. For your children, if you can’t find them, see if you can locate their friends, and then click on “following.” I am not advising what the kids call “creeping,” or reading posts without being an official follower. That said, if you’re worried about your child, it’s nice to know this option. You can find out more about the site on Twitter’s help pages.

Follow responsibly. Be the sort of person online that you want your child to be. Follow people who make you think. There are thousands of intelligent and admirable people on Twitter. Find some who share your interests and follow them.

Tweet intelligently. Write tweets that espouse the values you wish your children to possess. Don’t over-share about your relationship, sex or children. Adults, too, can be guilty of “mystery” tweets. Model for your children healthy conversations, not passive-aggressive behavior. Every time you post something online, ask yourself, Am I OK with my child/boss/co-worker/neighbor seeing this?

To protect or not? Users are able to shield their tweets from everyone except verified friends. I have mixed feelings about this. Protected tweets may save teens from online predators. But I question how protected these tweets really are. For instance, I’ve read that hackers can get through Facebook’s privacy settings. So why not Twitter’s? No matter what, I think kids need to be thoughtful about what they put online. And, if they think you might be watching, that may be more likely to happen. Sure, they’ll soon invent a new social media outlet where they can be alone again, but for this moment, we can be a bit more aware of what’s going on.

Teens have been unsupervised online for years. Since many parents don’t understand social media and schools ban it, there’s little opportunity to teach kids how to use it in a thoughtful, respectful way. That needs to change.
We must teach kids how to be their best selves in every arena—the classroom, halls, cafeteria, playing field, home and online. We need to wake up to how our kids are loving, hating and learning in 140 characters or fewer.                

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.

Photos above: © Aidarsky | Dreamstime.com, © Lindwa | Dreamstime.com

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