By Tristan Gorrindo, M.D.
By now, over 80 percent of teens have an account with Facebook, Twitter, or some other social networking site. A common feature on almost all of these sites is the ability to share with your friends whatever is on your mind. Commonly these posts appear on a “wall” or other profile page for everyone to see.
Postings come in several versions: short bits of text, pictures, movies, and links to other websites. And the content of these posts can range from mundane observations about the weather, to the exuberant joy of being accepted to a highly desirable college, and everything in between. With the average teen having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook every post is fairly public event.
Teenagers are often defined by their impulsivity and their limited appreciation of long-term consequences. As a child psychiatrist, I see how poorly thought through social network posts can have real-life consequences. For example, a teen facebooking, “I’m so mad at Jessica, I could kill her,” might result in suspension from school. Even posts about, “getting wasted last night,” can have consequences for participation in school athletics or college recruitment if adults stumble across them.
In my work with teens, I try to get them in the habit slowing down the entire process of posting, with the hope that they’ll think before they post. One such tool I’ve created is the mnemonic W.A.I.T.
“W” asks the question: Would I say this in front of a school assembly? If a teenage boy, for example, has 800 friends on Facebook, it is then helpful for have him visualize standing in from of 800 peers at an assembly school assembly reading his Facebook posting aloud. Still sound like a good idea?
“A” asks the question: Am I in a good emotional place right now? Drawing from the basic notion that thoughts and feelings are connected, here teens learn to think about the ways in which their mood might be affecting what they are about to say.
“I” asks the questions: Might my intent be misunderstood? The teen tries some perspective-taking to determine if his or her comment might be misunderstood.
…tomorrow, or the next day? “T” asks the question: Can this wait a day? In an effort to slow the emotional drive that pushes teens to post to the Internet, this intervention asks teens to evaluate the urgency of what they are about to say. Why is it so urgent? What will happen if I wait?
I recognize that it’s unrealistic to expect that teens will W.A.I.T. every time they want to share something on a social media site, but I ask the teens I work with to write it on a post-it and stick it on their computer with the hope that it’ll slow them down. Using this technique, teens learn a structured way of evaluating whether or not something belongs on the Internet. It also provides clinicians and parents with a structured conversation tool to engage teens in discussions about what they are posting online.