Dear Teenagers: Let’s Talk Texting

Shaun Cassidy and his perfectly feathered hair
Shaun Cassidy and his perfectly feathered hair

When I was in 6th grade, I had the hugest crush on Craig T. If you’d seen the way he wore his Shaun Cassidy hair feathered perfectly and how he seemed to have every color of the striped OP shirts there was, you’d understand. So, when Craig T. asked for my yearbook, I was over the moon.

He wrote, “I don’t like you so stop telling people that I do.”

The pull of the mighty OP shirt is intoxicating, though,  so upon reading his words, I interpreted instead: “If anyone asks, I don’t like you (wink, wink), but I actually do.”

I re-visited my interpretation of his words over and over that summer, planning our reunion in the Fall (I would run my fingers through his feathers and he would comment that the way my hair had gone from surfer wavy to Roseanne Roseannadanna frizzy in one summer made me all the more adorable).

Roseanne Rosannadanna
Roseanne Rosannadanna on SNL; YouTube her. You will not regret it.

I wanted so badly for this boy to like me that I manipulated my interpretation of his rather cruel words to fit my narrative. I also completely ignored the fact that he lived two streets over from me and we could have spent the entire summer together had he wanted to.

I swear to the entire west coast that Craig T. was wearing this exact shirt in one of the pictures I took of him with the Polaroid Camera I got for Christmas that year.
I swear to the entire West Coast that Craig T. was wearing this exact shirt in one of the pictures I took of him with the Polaroid Camera I got for Christmas that year.

[I take solace in the fact that the last picture I saw of Craig T., taken just a few years ago, revealed a 40-something man still draped in feathered hair and clad in OP stripes.]

What Craig T.’s re-interpreted yearbook message did offer me, though, was a summer off from feeling all the feels I had to feel at that time. My home life was not a happy one and we had just moved to the area, so I didn’t have an established group of friends. Plus, I was dealing with that whole wavy-to-frizzy hair transition and desperately awaiting breasts that would take a whole other year to emerge.

When I examine how I so seamlessly forced that yearbook message into a whole storyline that fed and distracted me for an entire summer, I can’t help but compare it to the modern day medium for messages between ‘tweens and teens: namely texting.

Now, sit tight. This is not a polemic on the evils of of the interwebs by some middle-aged mother in mom jeans (partially because I am a middle-aged mother in yoga pants). Texting has a place in our lives and can enhance relationships in a positive way.

But texting can also add unnecessary drama where there is none. And if there ever was a population that does not require any extra drama, it would be that of the ‘tween/teen variety in America. No offense.

[Look– Nobody is blaming you for the extra bit of drama you add to the world. We have all been there — even your parents. It’s what got us through puberty and helped us to become the delightful, well-adjusted, wise adults you see before you now.]

As a parent of teens myself, I am not so much worried about the drama. But I do worry when unnecessary drama prevents people from focussing on the parts of their lives that actually require attention. I, for example, would have fared much better had I spent that summer of Craig T. trying to make new friends in our new neighborhood or maybe developing skills to navigate my unhappy home.

Like that single line scrawled across the page of a yearbook that had me planning my first kiss all summer, though, a single text can send one of you dear teenagers spiraling into a world not actually intended by said text. If that single text becomes multiple texts spread over a weekend, it can render a teen undone. UNDONE!

[I’ve seen in happen.]

Just to test my theory, I recently parsed a text conversation with a teenager. In SaidTeen’s mind, that conversation had lasted 4 days and occupied about 27% of SaidTeen’s brain space during that time (brain space that would have been better utilized cleaning SaidTeen’s room — is all I’m saying).

We re-enacted the text (probably rendering me “the crazy mom”), me playing the part of SaidTeen’s recipient, and SaidTeen playing the part of SaidTeen’s self. The entire conversation, that which had stolen 4 days of SaidTeen’s attention, lasted all of 45 seconds — dramatic pauses and eye rolls included.

A 45 second conversation would typically be a blip in anyone’s day, possibly a casual exchange before class. The contents of the aforementioned exchange, once read aloud, were fairly benign.

But SaidTeen hadn’t seen the exchange as benign. Neither had SaidTeen’s conversation partner. By the end of the conversation, they were spending more time discussing what the other meant in their texts than the actual subject of the conversation.

So here is what I want SaidTeen and all teens to know:

1.  When a text exchange has you flummoxed, read it aloud. You might be surprised at how brief it really is.

2.  Give text exchanges the energy they deserve, which is usually not a lot. If you find yourself expending extra energy or brain space on a text exchange, use that telephone app on your texting device and call the other person involved. Clarify what they mean. You will typically get more truthful information when speaking voice to voice. And, if you think the other person might not be telling the truth, there is nothing like a bit of face time (virtual and real), where you can see each other’s expressions and body language, to suss out fact from fiction.

3.  Thought texting can be a helpful way to approach a challenging topic with friends and loved ones, consider using it as a springboard to conversations — not a replacement. Now, I know that this is the toughest suggestion of all because it is considerably easier to have a challenging conversation without looking at the other person. But I promise you that, with practice, you will get used to challenging conversations that do not require any sort of screen. And this skill will be of great benefit to you when you are an adult.

4.  Try not to confuse texting with a real relationship. It’s hard to get to know somebody in a text. You might enhance what you know about somebody, but texts do not equal relationships. Honestly, speaking straight from my mom yoga pants, texting allows us to sanitize our discussions, to write what we think the other person will want to hear, and to present a more sanitized, often less authentic, version of ourselves. Real relationships are built upon the good, bad, and the ugly. You need to see someone’s gritty mistakes and silly responses to truly know them.

5.  Don’t allow texting (or social media) to drown out the very real concerns you might have in your very real life.

Consider these suggestions when you think you know somebody well or understand somebody’s thoughts after exchanging screens and screens of texts. You could save yourself from wasting way too much of your valuable time and energy on somebody who just doesn’t deserve it — even if he does have perfectly feathered Shaun Cassidy hair.

[I’m looking at you, Craig T.]

Middle School
Middle School Me: How could anyone resist those bangs?