Teen Harassment Goes High Tech

Instant Messenger (IM) Monster by Teri Jacobson

Much has been written about protecting children from unsafe and inappropriate internet websites and chatrooms. Parents need to be aware of the potential emotional harm that can occur with your child’s use of Instant Messaging, particularly if you have an adolescent daughter.

Instant Messaging, or IM for short, gives the user the ability to “chat” with one person or many people in real time. It is a successful tool in the workplace for example, replacing intercom communication when many people are working on a project and exchanging ideas. But in the hands of emotionally immature adolescent girls, it can become a tool of emotional manipulation and devastation.

The emotional identity of girls is based upon their relationships with each other. Some of these relationships are mutually supportive and the outcome positive for all involved. But sometimes the relationships are mean, bullying, gossipy and back stabbing. This behavior can begin during school hours and continue via IM at home.

When we converse with others in person we can “read” the effect of our words by the body language we are talking with and adjust our conversation accordingly. For example, if our words are hurtful the other person might react by crying or becoming angry and we can defuse the situation. Conversely, if we are teasing or joking, the other person can tell by our body language, the tone of our voice and facial expressions.

Children are not naturally born with the internal ability to identify and understand the appropriate ways to interact with others. A child is taught through parental reminders and examples how to correctly deal with anger and avoid using words or actions that can hurt when interrelating with their friends. This parental involvement causes the child to develop their own ability to self monitor, this isn’t something that happens overnight but builds over time way into the teen years, and isn’t always in place when logged onto IM.

IM is a depersonalized method of communication. There are no visual or verbal cues to let the sender and receiver know the meaning behind the words. The receiver has no idea if the friend is telling a joke; teasing or serious and the sender does not see the immediate, negative consequences of the words. Misunderstandings happen, feelings are hurt, friendships broken and even emotional manipulation can happen.

For example, Molly hides behind a different screen name when contacting her friend Abby. This screen name is not identified by Abby as coming from Molly, Molly “chats” all sorts of person information regarding Abby’s school, the names of friends, etc causing Abby to become afraid and concerned about how this so called stranger knows her so intimately. Meanwhile, Molly is having fun, at her friend’s expense, pretending to be a stranger and freaking out her friend. There is also the danger of girls giving out their friends IM addresses to other kids, particularly boys.

The isolation of the sender and receiver is supported when the computer is in a girl’s room. Much has been written regarding the misuse of computers by children who are not properly supervised by their parents. Parents cannot see the negative emotional consequences experienced when the door to their daughter’s room is closed when she is using IM. Having the computer in a centralized, public area of the house allows parents to hear the crying, see the upheaval an IM conversation might have on their daughter and help, if they can.

IM also has a potentially negative impact on homework. The computer is nearby, a friend logs onto IM and the computer lets the girl know while doing her work. She looks over to check and needs to respond to whoever is there. She has no concept of time passing until mom or dad checks on her. Is she ready for her test? Does she have all her homework done because it is now time for bed? What exactly has she been doing for the last hour? Parents will wonder.

The computer is a marvelous tool that not only keeps us informed but helps us stay connected but like any tool it can be misused. Staying in touch with friends is a prime motivating force in an adolescent girl’s life and IM can become an important way for her to communicate with her friends. But an adolescent girl does not always have the emotional maturity to discern messages received or conveyed when “chatting” and it a can result in emotional devastation. Parents must act as gatekeepers, monitoring their daughter’s use of the computer and stepping in when they see that she is receiving inappropriate messages, that the emotional impact is overwhelming her or it interferes with her schoolwork. As a girl matures and is guided by her parents she will be able to correctly use IM, staying connected with and communicating with her friends for a long time to come.