Friendship Fires in a Digital World #Cyberbullying

Based on an interview with Dana Kerford, Friendship Expert and Founder of URSTRONG, this information was originally published in the December 2016 issue of Girlfriend Magazine.

Why is it so important to hash out disagreements in person? When technology becomes involved, why do fights tend to get messy? How do we protect our kids from cyberbullying?

In GirlPower & GoodGuys, we talk a lot about the importance of keeping relationships healthy online. While digital etiquette and cyber safety are so important, it’s not always intuitive for kids and they sometimes forget to consider the many ways their messages can be misinterpreted. So much of how we communicate is non-verbal (80-90%) through our facial expressions, posture, and tone of voice. When we send a message to our friends online, those factors and nuances are removed and the person on the other end is left to infer how they said it. Unfortunately, if they don’t know the person well or have a ‘history’ with the person, they don’t always assume the best and tend to interpret messages negatively.

We use this example in our workshops:

When your friend tells you something surprising, you might say, “Shut up!” You’ve got a smile on your face and you say it jovially, so your friend knows what you’re really saying is, “Wow! Are you serious? That’s amazing!” When you simply type those two words, removing body language and tone of voice, your friend may picture you with your eyebrows furrowed in a grumpy, annoyed tone.

Messages being misinterpreted are among the many, many reasons Friendship Fires® should always be dealt with face-to-face.

Sometimes it’s really hard to express how you feel in person. Do you have any tips on over-coming this? 

Conflict is uncomfortable and not something we’re naturally good at handling. Technology has provided people with an ‘easy out’ so they don’t have to face conflict head-on. However, not dealing with it directly, face-to-face, leads people to choose inappropriate ways to manage their Friendship Fires®. Some inappropriate ways kids manage conflict include: gossiping, rolling their eyes, alliance-building, exclusion, not tagging them in an Instragram pic, posting a pic online that would make them feel jealous or left-out, passive-aggressive text messages, and so on.

On that note, we teach these steps for putting out Friendship Fires®:

  1. Find a good time to talk, just the two of you.
  2. Retell the situation.
  3. Explain how it made you feel.
  4. Have an open, honest conversation and talk-it-out with a goal of moving towards forgive-and-forget.

We always teach kids that Friendship Fires® should never be dealt with online and you should never type something you wouldn’t say to their face.

OK, so you’ve had a group squabble over text message and someone has said something they shouldn’t have. What now?  

We all mess up sometimes and occasionally ‘big emotions’ get the better of us. The first step in making it right again is acknowledging you messed up. Admitting you texted something you shouldn’t have helps to release the feelings of regret. Next, a genuine apology is in order…face-to-face! Have an open, honest conversation about how you were feeling and own the fact you typed/texted something you should not have. Let your friend know that you won’t do that again and next time you’ll talk to them in person if you’ve got a Fire® that won’t go out!

If a friend is starting a fight over text message, do you have any practical advice on what to say/do next? Is there something that is quite an effective reply?

Keep it short and simple. Don’t engage in a conversation over text and simply type, “I really care about our friendship. Let’s chat in person! K?” If they’re not ready to talk in person, just give them time and say, “No worries! Lemme know when ur ready to chat.” Throw in a heart emoji or frog – something to lighten the mood and let them know you’re aiming to resolve the issue and care about your relationship with them.

Do you have any tips for kids who might be feeling really upset following one of these ‘hidden’ fights? When is showing an adult a good idea? 

I would recommend they screenshot any unkind behavior they see online. If the Fire® feels big inside and they can’t seem to put it out, then talking to an adult and showing them what’s going on is always a good idea. Often kids don’t talk to adults because they’re worried they’ll make it worse (e.g. their mom calls the other kid’s mom, or the teacher tells the Principal and the Principal calls them down for a “meeting”, etc.). Parents, especially, sometimes overreact out of love for their child and a protective instinct that kicks in. If kids are worried the adult may over-react and are simply looking for advice and support, then before they open up to them, let them know what they need. For instance, “I need some advice with something, but I need you to promise you won’t overreact or do anything without talking to me first? Deal?” This sets the stage for the adult to be mindful and empathetic so kids can feel safe opening up.

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