The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. II 3/03

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Instant Conflicting


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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
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Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

by Richard Cohen
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Welcome to the March issue of The School Mediator.

This month we explore the impact of Instant Messaging communications on student conflict. Take a moment to send along your thoughts and experiences.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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Instant Conflicting

Nick: "Would you mind if I 'hang out' with Yvonne?"

Jason: "No. Would you mind if I 'hang out' with Lisa?"

Nick began to date Yvonne after this exchange, concluding from Jason's words that he didn't seem to mind. Right?

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Yvonne was Jason's ex-girlfriend, and the last thing Jason wanted was Nick--a buddy since elementary school--dating her. Not only would it make things awkward between him and Nick, but Jason still missed Yvonne.

Jason was being sarcastic when he suggested that he wouldn't mind. He assumed that Nick would figure that out when he referenced Lisa, an ex-girlfriend that Nick still pined over.

Problem is, Nick and Jason communicated in a manner that decreased the chances that they would be understood: They used Instant Messaging.

Instant Messaging, or "IM," is a relatively new form of communication that is increasingly popular with young people, especially 10 to 15 year olds. It is not unusual for students to spend 90 minutes using IM every night.

Instant Messaging is basically emailing in real time. I send a message to you, you read the message and type one back to me, and our messages are viewable on each other's computer screens almost instantaneously. In addition to one-on-one messaging, groups of people can participate in an IM "conversation" virtually simultaneously.

Ask any group of computer-literate middle schoolers whether they have had a conflict that was related to, or aggravated by, IM, and many will raise their hands.

Jason and Nick's story illustrates perhaps the greatest source of IM-related conflicts: misunderstandings concerning the meaning of communications. If Nick and Jason had spoken face-to-face, for instance, Nick could have seen Jason's hurt facial expression, heard his ironic tone, and asked: "Are you serious?" But as IM delivers solely textual information, users are often required to make educated guesses to decipher its meaning.

And this sort of miscommunication is just the beginning of IM-related conflicts. Our sample group of 12-year-olds would go on to describe disputes like the following:

What's the Password: Every IM user has a password intended to protect their identity online. But students come to know each others' passwords, and intentionally assume identities in order to trick/harass each other.

Cut and Paste: Students copy messages received from one person and send it on to an unintended recipient, manipulate messages, and even print them out and distribute them.

Who's Out There?: It is very difficult to be certain with whom one is actually communicating via IM. Students bait one another to say negative things about people who, unbeknownst to the communicator, are privy to the conversation. Or they talk to one person on IM and simultaneously relay what that person is saying to yet another person via the telephone.

"Profile" Problems: Each IM user has a "profile" page that outlines, among other things, their screen name, interests, and friends. Peers gauge their relationships according to this page, and become upset if they are not appropriately referenced.

Me and My Buddies: Each IM user creates a list of "buddies:" other users who can easily participate in their online conversations. Conflicts arise regarding who is or is not included on another's buddy list.

Significantly, recent research indicates that IM--and email in general--is not a neutral means of communication. Characteristics of IM actually seem to increase the frequency and intensity of school-based interpersonal conflicts.

Educators and parents must begin to educate young people about how to use IM wisely. Luckily, it doesn't require an advanced degree to avoid IM-related problems; just common sense. Begin with the following four tips:

1. Do not talk about people behind their backs.

2. Do not say anything on IM that you wouldn't want posted at school.

3. For difficult conversations or conflicts, don't use IM. Pick up the phone, or better yet, meet with the other person and talk face-to-face.

4. Be explicit when you are being sarcastic or silly so that your tone is not misunderstood.

How has Instant Messaging effected conflicts in your school? Please send along your experiences and thoughts...

Read how one journalist/parent handled the IM dilemma with his daughter.



--nm jc u?


--who do u lyk?

i luv john

--omg! him? ewww!

wut'z hiz sn?

--i dunno g2g hw

143 aaf


Teenage IM users have developed a language that is part contemporary cool, part shorthand. Use the glossary that follows to translate the sample IM conversation above.

143: i love you
aaf: always and forever
bbl: be back later
bf4l: best friends for life
brb: be right back
da: the
g2g: got to go
hw: homework
jc: just chillin'
l8er: later
lol: laugh out loud
lyk: like
ne1: anyone
nm: nothing much
omg: oh my god
sn: screen name
sup?: what's up
ttyl: talk to you later
u: you

Thank you to students at Belmonte Saugus Middle School, Saugus, MA, (especially Jesse Smith and Kelly McCarthy) and Easton Jr. High School, Easton, MA, for their help with this issue.

 About Us
For almost twenty years, School Mediation Associates has been devoted to the application and promotion of mediation in schools. SMA's mission is to transform schools into safer, more caring, and more effective institutions. Our books and training programs have been utilized by tens of thousands of people around the world.

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