Whenever I start to tell my son, “Your words have power, so...” he finishes my sentence with, “...so choose them wisely, I know.” As a writer, I do put a heavy value on word choice and the beauty of language. But what I really mean is: Think before you speak — what you’re about to say could hurt someone’s feelings.
Thinking before one speaks is a skill that most of us will hone all our lives, some with more success than others. And when the words themselves are typed, rather than spoken, it can add another layer of disconnection to their impact.
My son is still at the age where he’s speaking almost all of his conversations, rather than texting or messaging or posting. But I know those days are ahead, and for a generation of kids who will communicate with each other less in person and more online, we might need to adjust our advice: Think before you type, and speak before you “send.”
Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator, writes for the Washington Post that parents can help their teenagers learn to be mindful of how their quips and responses affect others:
One thing I see over and over when students share texts and social media interactions with me is a stark lack of empathy and compassion behind the screen. Groups of kids target another kid without stopping to think about how their comments might affect the person on the other end. For many kids, even just one or two comments can be devastating.
To be fair, kids ganging up on each other and showing a lack of empathy for their words and actions isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, and it can’t be blamed entirely on smartphones and social media. But clinical psychologist and author John Duffy tells the Post that “it’s far easier to communicate free of compassion and empathy when you are not looking someone in the eye, when you are not in their presence.”
It makes sense. Think of how many times you have read a tweet or a comment on a news article — from a supposedly grown, mature adult — and thought, “you’d never have the nerve to say that to someone’s face.” It’s not just that we feel emboldened by the anonymity. We also feel more emotionally detached to the written words. It’s no wonder that teenagers do, too.
One way to combat that, Hurley writes, is to teach kids to read their own messages out loud before they hit send. She does this as an actual exercise in her office with some of her teenage patients, taking turns reading messages out loud.
When they hand me the phone to read the conversations back to them, they hear their own words (and things said by their friends) in a real voice. They hear the hurt, the anger, the sadness or the jealousy. They feel the emotions differently.
When they read or write the words on a tiny screen, they can use emotional detachment to avoid experiencing the feelings attached to those words. But when we sit back to back, two humans reading texts and posts aloud, they absorb the emotions. When the words are negative, they struggle to read them out loud. But when the words are positive, teens soften a bit.
It’s pretty unlikely your teens will want to do this little exercise around the dinner table, but you can still encourage them to develop a habit of reading their words out loud before hitting send. For example, when they’re writing a report for school or an email to a boss and they’re struggling with a specific paragraph or section, have them read it aloud to you. Even in less contentious situations like these, they’ll begin to feel the difference between the written and spoken word.
You can also model this behaviour for them by practicing it yourself. That might sound like this: “Hey, I was going to send this message to Aunt Emily about being late again, but now that I’m reading it out loud, it might sound too harsh. What do you think?”
After all, it doesn’t hurt for us to develop that habit a little more, too.