The brevity with which texting has taken over American communication has been stunning. I say this as someone who often looked at the practice through a disdainful, yet hypocritical lens – with my fingers contributing to the trend more times than I care to admit. I half expect the smiley character to become an official part of our alphabet and actual phone conversations to become a charmingly retro engagement in the near future. Not surprisingly, the group leading the way on this cultural shift has been the teenage set, who continue to push the boundaries in ways both productive and volatile at the same time. The prevalence of texting brings unique challenges for teenagers with disabilities.
The ability to harness this method of communication can have dramatic effects on social acceptance and overall life satisfaction. Occupational Therapy is doing its part to help these teens “live life to its fullest”(the motto of the AOTA) in a number of ways. In the latest edition of OT Practice Magazine, OT Karen Thayer discusses her Text Talk curriculum targeted at middle and high school settings. Karen has worked in childhood development for 32 years and was the president of the Wyoming OT Association from 1993 to 1997. Thayer speaks with great clarity in identifying the scope of the problem.
“Teens with disabilities strive to be accepted by their peers and search for opportunities to connect with others in this typical form of communication. Difficulties in social settings arise when people misunderstand or misinterpret the social nuances of texting. Failing to engage in acceptable social texting behaviors results in a breakdown of social belonging; increases at-risk situations; and, for certain behaviors, places the teen in a position where legal repercussions may exist. Just as society educates teens about the dangers of drinking and driving, it is imperative that teens are taught about texting behaviors that can jeopardize their safety, contribute to bullying, and compromise their social well-being. “
The article points out how texting behavior can be an incredibly tricky undertaking. With subtle codes and complex social dynamics, to say nothing of just the actual phone skills needed to engage, texting can lead to risky behavior and social alienation. Thayer developed her program on small classes principles (4-6 students) that encourage interaction and utilize peer tutor involvement. Her curriculum is broken down into 4 areas:
Textisms : This category boils down to mastering the art of the unique and sometimes downright zany, language of texting. These rules change rapidly and developing a working vocabulary is essential for teens looking to avoid confusing and embarrassing situations.
Texting Etiquette: Divided into 3 areas: social environment, school, and the workplace, this section incorporates the many intricacies of manners within the medium. It is a critical component to learn, as misunderstandings can tend to snowball if rules of behavior are unclear.
Safety: Whether sexting or texting while driving, we are all familiar with the tragedies directly or indirectly associated with texting. This section deals with the legal and tragic scenarios that can play out within the practice. It is heavy on group discussions and stresses strategic solutions in avoiding compromising behaviors.
Cyberbullying: This section deals with the psychological effects of bullying and its unfortunate practice through electronic communication. The department of Health and Student Services estimate that 15% of high school seniors have experienced cyberbullying. This section uses role-play and peer reviewed strategies to help combat the problem.
Karen Thayer has done yeoman’s work in developing this program and bringing essential attention to a complex issue. Her program incorporates other professionals – including speech therapists, guidance counselors, and social workers – all who can contribute solutions from a different perspective. Texting is an activity with no signs of abating, and its imperative that therapy professionals lead the way in helping teens develop the skills necessary to maintain social acceptance and self-confidence.