April 29th was a bad day in Lafayette. Around midnight at Festival Internationale, two people began arguing. Possibly fueled by alcohol, the fight escalated, someone pulled a gun, and one person ended up dead, and two injured by stray shots.
Interpersonal drama brings many kids to the Emergency Department too, particularly teenagers. Someone says the wrong thing, feelings are hurt, punches are exchanged, and we see the ensuing facial and head injuries. Teens are particularly vulnerable to these escalations. Already at an emotional age, with hormones surging, feelings are raw and easily chafed. Teens are also often in the early stages of learning conflict resolution. They are unskilled in managing feelings and arguments without resorting to shouting and violence.
Several outside forces can inhibit teens from maturing into rational adults too. A lot of media these days portrays immature behavior as something fun to watch and emulate. Reality TV consists of knuckleheads gossiping about each other on camera, making wars out of simple disagreements. Then the assailants confront each other and scream obscenities for the enjoyment of the TV audience. And the combatants are always so good-looking, just like teens want to be.
Social media amplifies drama as well. When I see fights brewing at festivals, it’s not just two teens having a tiff. There’s usually a crowd of “friends” swirling around, egging them on, joining the shouting. With social media, the crowd is even bigger, with unlimited gawkers available through screens and sites, taking sides, trading barbs. Simple arguments become electronically-enabled riots.
Some teens learn poor conflict resolution at home too. When some parents fight, their negotiating skills look like the Jerry Springer show. Rather than a calm discussion of differences, these parents try to intentionally hurt the other’s feelings, verbally “aiming to kill,” instead of speaking respectfully. When kids grow up living with such behavior, they rarely learn a better way for themselves.
Like we discussed above, social media can fuel conflicts between people. Once on Facebook, I saw a picture of a friend’s teenage son at a party. His round smiling face, his arms draped around two friends, reminded me of actor Jonah Hill (a cute Jonah Hill, not the overweight creep he sometimes portrays). So, bonehead that I can be, I said so in a comment. The backlash from he and his parents, and my wife, still makes me cringe with embarrassment.
Thus one problem with social media: it’s easier to commit a social faux pas with a keyboard. When you’re face to face with a person, you naturally edit what you say, to not offend. There’s non-verbal cues that help you to not say dreadful things. This in-person behavioral check doesn’t operate when interacting online.
Secondly, when you’re angry at another person, this social media disconnect makes it easier to intentionally wound. In World War II, fighter pilots were rarely troubled by killing their enemies, though viciously machine-gunning each other in one-on-one combat. This was because they concentrated on the other plane, not the pilot inside. Likewise today, it’s easier to say the meanest thing that comes to mind online, because you’re saying it to a machine. But screens are like fighter planes- there’s a real person hidden inside that gets hurt.
So how can you counter the forces of Reality TV and on-line depersonalization, that turn your teen into a screaming drama king or queen? Begin before your child’s a teen. In pre-teen years, games should be played less on screens, and more face-to-face. Board and card games, tag and backyard ball, are all conflict-resolution exercises for kids. Negotiating the rules, playing fair, keeping friends, all happen in those arenas, not in video games.
You must also model good behavior yourself. Parents should have arguments that aren’t death matches, but calm settlings of differences. Feeling wronged and needing vengeance are innate human traits- show your kids how you bypass those cruder motivations, to stay friendly.
Finally, texting and messaging are certainly convenient, but elementary school kids should spend more time together in person than on screens. Phone and computer time should be limited, like limiting how much candy kids eat. And explain that there’s real people on the other side of the screen, not computer-generated enemies. Then it’s easier to avoid comparing someone to Jonah Hill.