Guest Blog: Teens in the Twitterverse
Recently, I finally broke down and got a Twitter account. For me, this is huge; I was one of the last people I knew to get a cell phone and I only just learned how to text. But a few friends, including Rachel, had talked about the benefits of Twitter. My teen students joked that while MySpace was middle school, Facebook was totally last year. Clearly, Twitter is where it’s at. So I sent my first tweet out into the twitterverse.
I was hooked. Inspired, 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 had an idea to create a voluntary project for my students using Twitter.
I was excited. I was being so technological! (Me!) I could use the 140-character limit to teach them the power of word choice! We would explore expression in a 21st century way! They would bring sophistication to the natural writing they did every day!
I couldn’t have been more naïve.
If my version of Twitter is creativity & news, theirs is Lord of the Flies with a country music soundtrack. My students have been unsupervised online for years (since MySpace was cool), but nobody has taught them how to simply be in this arena.
Here’s what I discovered:
1. No privacy
While Facebook offers some privacy settings—you have to “friend” someone to see their posts—most tweets, unless protected, are open to the world. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. After all, I wasn’t raised on reality TV or social media. But it would never have occurred to me to broadcast all of my most private thoughts. To My Entire High School. A seemingly harmless tweet like “I just wish we could be together” now means that everyone knows that I have a crush on someone. And that would mean people guessing who I have the crush on. And unless we’re already “talking”, or are likely to be, that innocuous tweet is suddenly some serious fodder for the mean girls (and boys) to use against me.
2. Hearts on Twitter sleeves
My heart aches when I read tweets where kids unload their innermost secrets, feelings, and desires to vast amounts of people. And how do those teens feel if nobody “retweets,” “favorites,” “follows,” or replies? It’s like baring your soul to a crowded room while a bunch of blank, disinterested faces stare back at you. That’s the stuff of nightmares.
3. Impulsive bursts of anger
When I get irritated with someone, I may storm off or talk to a friend. But then I cool off. And then I think about consequences. There’s none of that on Twitter. Anyone can leave a class or conversation and tweet their anger immediately. And…POOF! It explodes across cyberspace and consequences unfold rapidly and publicly.
4. Slurs and swears
I don’t feel comfortable repeating many of the words I’ve seen on Twitter feeds. “Slut,” or the newer “smut,” while more tame in language, is cutting in its intent to harm. A boy uses it to punish a girl who breaks up with him. A girl uses it to wreck a relationship. Soon, thanks to retweets and replies, it spins like a storm, flinging the labeled girl adrift from her friends and former status.
5. Narrowing a life
One student stopped doing an activity she loved—something she was shockingly good at, something that fed her—because she was mocked for it on Twitter. Teens are fearful of judgment enough without this public forum.
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—are all tweeted for everyone to see, feeding voyeurism (for those who are silent readers) and drama (for those who love to provide commentary).
7. “Mystery” tweets
These popular tweets bridge all of the categories. “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, in an episode of BFF 2.0, talks about the harm of mysterious status updates on AIM and Facebook, but I think the same could be said for these tweets. They heighten the likelihood for drama, embarrassment, and paranoia for all involved.
Teens, think of what you put on Twitter as a permanent tattoo. Be your best self, even in cyberspace. Use Twitter to express your creativity, gain access to folks you admire, and learn. Don’t write anything that you’d hate to have said about yourself. Or your best friend. The consequences may be more disastrous than you can imagine.
Parents, get a Twitter account. Model how to be human online. We need to wake up to how our kids are loving, loathing, and learning in 140 characters or less.
Emma Kress has held a variety of educational posts in pre-k through 12th grade. Currently, she teaches high school English in NY and was just selected as North Syracuse’s Teacher of the Year for 2012-2013. Don’t miss her next column for Family Times magazine about coping strategies for the parents of these tweeting teens.