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Early last spring Megan Gunder, of Wantagh, New York, found out exactly what technology's "cutting edge" means. While checking messages on her cell phone, she opened a text from her boyfriend that read, "Please don't call me anymore." Breaking up is always hard to do, but getting the boot from cyberspace made her humiliation even more excruciating. Who would be so thoughtlessly cruel?
A teen with a machine, that's who. Roughly half of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 now own cell phones and 9 out of 10 use the Internet -- and the more wired they are, the ruder they get. Texting, e-mailing, and instant messaging virtually 24-7, teens are immersed in their own universe, where the normal rules of etiquette don't apply. "They feel as if they're wearing an invisible cape," says Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer and executive director of wiredsafety.org. "You can tell a kid who's standing next to you to watch her language or stop being mean. But the distance technology provides means that parents aren't on hand to witness, much less curb, bad behavior." What's more, in cyberspace kids never see their friends, or enemies, which emboldens them to get crude and crass in ways they wouldn't dream of doing to someone's face. It would be comforting to think these are the teens who are one step shy of juvenile hall, but no; they're the same kids who say "please" and "thank you" and hold the door open.
Rudeness, however, isn't inevitable. Remember that manners are not intuitive for teens. "Teaching teens how to behave in cyberspace is really no different from teaching them how to behave in society," says Aftab. "It's all about respect for yourself and others." Read on to find out how kids are acting up -- and how to get yours to act nice.
Etiquette Errors: Seventy-five percent of online youth use IM, which has virtually taken the place of e-mail. It's become a substitute for personal interaction -- which makes it easy to be insensitive to the point of cruelty when you can't see the look on someone else's face. Kids avoid people they don't want to talk to by messaging them instead. Some teens, especially girls, use the system's buddy list to ostracize others by agreeing as a group to block messages from people they don't like. With IM, rumors fly at the speed of light, and feelings get hurt and reputations ruined. Teens sometimes IM a friend using a made-up screen name, hoping they can get the person to say something revealing or embarrassing. They then pass the message to others. The brevity of messages doesn't leave much room for the niceties of grammar. Phonetic spelling is the norm ("wassup?" or just "sup?"), and there's a dictionary's worth of abbreviations (such as POMS, or "parents over my shoulder"), including those for obscenities in the event of a POMS situation.
Rudeness Remedy: While you can't monitor every moment of your child's behavior, you can set guidelines, says Aftab: Think before you type, respect others' privacy, don't pass on or post false information about someone, and don't use anyone else's screen name. "Remind kids that there is no such thing as anonymity," says Carleton Kendrick, PhD, a family therapist in Boston and co-author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's (Unlimited Publishing). "Every message leaves a trail, and what they say can come back to haunt them." Aftab also advises parents to learn how to use IM and become familiar with online language (see teenangels.com or webpedia.com). Remember, too, that your right -- and responsibility -- to know your children's friends includes their online buddies. To help kids check their impulses, Aftab suggests teaching them the "take-five" rule: Before sending an angry IM, take your finger off the "send" button and do something else for five minutes; chances are, you'll have cooled off by then.
Etiquette Errors: In chat rooms many kids quickly shelve their manners like last year's sweater from Grandma. "Under the cloak of a screen name, kids can say and role-play whatever they want, which is intoxicating," says Kendrick. Conversation routinely consists of brief exchanges sprinkled with the casual obscenities kids think are cool but would certainly edit in the presence of adults. On sites such as myspace.com they often post pictures of themselves in their underwear or less, and boys share ratings of girls' bodies. "These sites, which have become a constant environment for kids, can desensitize them to coarseness and obscenity," says Kendrick.
Rudeness Remedy: Ask your child to give you a tour of the chat rooms she frequents and show you her Web pages, suggests Aftab (check her computer's online history to make sure you're seeing all of them). If there are rude or inappropriate postings, ask her to take them down immediately, then follow up with occasional spot checks.Cell Phones
Etiquette Errors: With almost half of all teens owning cell phones, loud conversations in public -- also known as "cell-yells" -- aren't the only problem. Kids can download special ringtones, called DisTones, which identify unwanted callers by assigning them songs (such as "American Idiot," "Shut Up," and "Naggin'") or voice announcements ("little ding dong") so they can avoid answering. There's also the silent ringtone, which sends callers straight to voice mail. And cell phones with built-in cameras allow teens to take compromising photos to pass around. "An up-the-skirt photo gets sent to everyone in a kid's posse, and by fourth period everybody knows what color panties Kristin is wearing," says Kendrick.
Rudeness Remedy: Give your kids a regular refresher course on cell phone etiquette -- speak quietly, make the conversation brief, turn the ringer off at the library, the movies, the restaurant. Tell them that using a cell phone camera to take a compromising photo, known as video voyeurism, is a federal offense with potentially harsh penalties. Even if your teen's cell cam photos are perfectly innocent, instruct him always to ask permission before taking anyone's photograph and posting it online. Make sure there are consequences for transgressions; since most teens consider their cell phone a lifeline, confiscating the phone for a day or two is usually sufficient.Text Messaging
Etiquette Errors: About one-third of teens regularly use their mobile phones to send text messages. Because texting demands a minimalist approach -- most systems have a maximum of 150 characters, compared with about 512 for instant messaging -- there's a wealth of abbreviations, symbols, and shortcuts, and the resulting messages can be brusque and harsh. Swift, silent, and irresistibly seductive, texting also encourages kids to retreat into their own world. "It's an odd thing to see hundreds of kids between classes messaging or phoning friends, who may be just down the hall, and ignoring the people around them," says Arthur Dulong, PhD, principal of Concord-Carlisle High School in Massachusetts.
Rudeness Remedy: TM lingo is even more compressed than that of IM, so it's important to teach teens to avoid unintentional rudeness. Explain that humor, particularly sarcasm, is often misunderstood. As Dulong points out, "Without gestures and facial expressions, something the sender considers benign may seem cruel to the recipient." Remind your kids that any message too hurtful to say in person shouldn't be sent. If your teen's texting gets out of hand -- you'll know, since every incoming and outgoing message is listed on your phone bill -- limit or exclude that feature, or get him a phone with parental controls.
Your kids learn how to behave -- or not -- from the adults around them. Here, five ways to set a good example.