How To Deal With Digital Drama
From misinterpreted text messages to bullies on Facebook, is digital drama ruining your life?
One afternoon last spring, Jaclynn was relaxing with some friends after school, watching the baseball team play, when everyone's phone beepedexcept hers. As if on cue, her friends all reached for their phones at the same time, and they were shocked by what they saw next: a photo of Jaclynn in a bikini with a caption that read, "Jaclynn is such a ho!"
Jaclynn was devastated. She recognized the photo: It had been taken the day before while she was hanging out with her longtime best friend, Amanda*. "We were kind of showing off, but the pictures weren't inappropriate," stresses the fourteen- year-old, from Albany, New York. "Afterward, we were like, 'If we don't delete them, someone could get ahold of them.' But when I got home, I totally forgot about it." Apparently, so did Amandauntil a friend of hers who didn't like Jaclynn spotted the photo of her and forwarded it to their classmates. "I felt so betrayed. I couldn't believe that Amanda let the girl take her phone and never did anything about it," says Jaclynn.
When she reluctantly returned to school the next day, she was greeted with dirty looks in the hallways. "I felt horrible. Even my best guy friend wrote, 'Jaclynn, I've lost all respect for you' as his Facebook status," she remembers. "I think people made a big deal about it because I'm known as a good girl, and they thought I was sending the picture to guys, but I don't do that kind of stuff!"
It sounds like a messy situation straight out of Gossip Girl, but these days it's reality for many girls. Call it digital drama, digital abuse, or textual harassment: Now that we're always on our cell phones and multiple social networking sites, issues between teens can pop up in an instant and would-be bullies have easierand more numerousways to pick on others. In fact, a new poll from MTV/Associated Press found that 56 percent of people ages fourteen to 24 have experienced some form of digital abuse, which includes everything from harassing someone via text and writing mean things online to sending around photos of others without their permission, as in Jaclynn's case.
Why are so many teens getting caught up in digital drama? One major reason is because technology makes it easy to hurt others without thinking through the consequences, according to Jill Murray, Psy.D., a psychotherapist from Laguna Niguel, California, who specializes in bullying and emotional abuse. "When we get away from interpersonal communication and do everything via text or computer where you don't really see anyone, an emotional detachment forms," she explains. "It becomes far easier to insult and degrade others."
Marissa*, from San Diego, says her life was completely turned upside down a few years ago when her ex-best friend started sabotaging Marissa's Facebook profile. "She knew my password, but I didn't think she'd be so low as to go on my page and change my status to make it really vulgar," says the 22-year-old. "When I found out about the hacking, I immediately changed my password, but I was already so ashamed and embarrassed by what she wrote. I never confronted her, though, because I didn't want her to make an even bigger scene."
Seventeen-year-old Rebecca*, from Atlanta, isn't surprised that people are willing to write things via text, e-mail, and social networking sites that they would never say directly to someone's face. "People feel protected by the distance. They can't see the hurt in the other person's eyes, so they don't think their mean words make as much of an impact as they do," she says. "But it can be really emotionally damaging when someone's telling you things like, 'You're ugly,' 'You're fat,' 'You should go kill yourself'even if it's not in person."
Being connected to others through different digital networks gives people "the ammo they need to fire away at a person if they want," according to Marissa. It can also easily lead to misunderstandings that may hurt friendships, points out Jen Hartstein, Psy.D., an adolescent psychologist in New York City who serves on the advisory board of A Thin Line, MTV's antidigital drama campaign. "There's no tone of voice in a text. If we infer a negative tone by mistake, that increases our emotional response and affects our reaction," she explains. In other words, a friend may playfully tease you over e-mail, but you might accidentally take it as an insult; on the flip side, someone may send a bullying text message and then later claim it was meant to be a joke.
Sexually aggressive texts are also a common cause of digital drama. Thirty-three percent of young people polled by MTV/Associated Press say that they've received messages with "sexual words and images"not all of them wanted. When Amy*, a nineteen-year-old from Albany, Georgia, first started to get texts from Dan* during her junior year of high school, she was excited. "He had a great personality and was so fun to be aroundeverything about him was attractive," she says. The messages were innocuous at first: He'd simply ask, "Hey, what's up?" Amy thought he just wanted to hang out, but it soon became obvious that he was looking to hook up. Since she was into him and flattered by all the attention, she decided to make out with him. "Soon after that, the creepy texts started," she says. "I think he thought, If I can get her to go this far, maybe I can get her to go even farther. He began straight-up asking me if we could have sex, and even though I said no, he continued pushing. I felt sexually harassed."
Finally, she told Dan not to contact her anymore. His response? "Don't worry, I don't like talking to bitches," he texted back. Amy didn't reply. "I thought about reporting him, but the idea scared me because I went to a small Christian school; I cared about my reputation and I knew this would stir things up," she says. "I already felt guilty for hooking up with him. There was a lot of confusion and emotion that I didn't know how to handle."
Like Amy, many teens are unsure how to tackle problems that happen over a cell phone or online, which is why digital drama can be so emotionally damaging, according to Todd Caze, a mental health therapist in St. Paul. "Teens feel like they should know how to deal with inappropriate messages, and when they don't, it can trigger feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression," he says. "They need to know that it's OK to block a phone number or not respond to a textand also tell an adult that this is going on."
If you don't feel comfortable approaching a parent about your situation, confide in another trusted adult or an older friend. For Jaclynn, talking to both her mother and her school's guidance counselor helped her put things in perspective. "I've lost some friends, but I've learned who I can and can't trust. Plus, I know other teens go through this too," she says. If you're experiencing online bullying and you're worried that it could escalate, start documenting it now, recommends Hartstein. "Save and print e-mails or texts, and take screen shots of posts on your Facebook page. You want to have the information to support your concerns and fears," she says.
Even though we are conditioned to immediately reply to every message we get, experts agree that you should step away from your phone or computer when you receive a hateful text or e-mail. "Turn your phone facedown and count to ten," suggests Hartstein. "If you can do this, you may find yourself in a calmer state of mind than when you got the message." Consider blocking the sender from your social networking sites, e-mail, and phone; or, you may even want to cut back on the number of places online where you're reachable. "A lot of my friends are deleting their Facebook accounts because girls are bullying them," notes Jaclynn.
Remember that if you do reply to a nasty message, it can end up making things worse. While being called a "bitch" deeply hurt Amy's feelings, she was right to simply ignore Dan, believes Murray, who says the best way to defuse digital drama is to stop perpetuating the cycle: "Don't react to the person's message. When dealing with a bully or any mean behavior, your only move should be to not respond."
*Name has been changed.
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