Social Skills Deficits and Texting

How to know and what to do if SMS (or WhatsApp) creates a mess


 A few weeks ago, I hosted a couple of yeshiva boys at my Shabbat table. One of them was saying how social media platforms today can (and do) ruin people’s lives. In the past if someone got caught driving while under the influence of alcohol, just a few people would find out about it (such as parents, siblings and close friends). These days, one text to a group on WhatsApp could allow 250 people or more to know that person has a permanent DWI (driving while intoxicated) sealed on their driving record.


Texting poses particular benefits and challenges for kids and young adults with a range of social disorders. Such individuals generally have greater-than-usual difficulty maintaining friendships in a one-on-one or group setting. They have to try to keep in mind so many factors such as: how physically close they can be to a peer, reading facial cues, understanding sarcasm, tone of voice, body language, mutual interests, group dynamics, etc.; things that may come naturally to individuals without social issues.  


In some cases, removing many of those face-to-face obstacles is a heaven-sent boon that enables them to just talk or text without all of that interference. But texting can also be challenging. Some of those who cope with social issues can’t identify derision, mockery, ridicule or even when to appropriately enter/exit a group discussion with texting.


I have a client who recently got blocked by two of her friends on a group chat and doesn’t know why. During our session she reported that she was not invited to a certain get-together they had and felt hurt and left out. She lashed out at them, bluntly asking, “Why wasn’t I invited to the party?” How does one “teach” appropriate texting behavior when so many subtle variables are in play?


I have another teenage client with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who does not like texting at all. When I asked him why, he simply said that it’s not real.


“You are talking into or typing onto a device not in front of a real person.”


A related conceptual issue is that some youths, especially with Facebook, feel they are popular and have hundreds of friends but in reality, they may not be popular at all.



Just a stage or a function of age?

The stereotype is that younger people are more text-happy, but there is reason to think that texting habits are not purely generational. There are 50-year-olds who are glued to their phones and 18-year-olds who hate it when they’re out with a bunch of buddies and everyone is “face down” – typing away instead of talking to each other.


Phony phoning

Some people use their phones as a crutch or a prop to appear busy or to avoid feeling awkward in public. Many people will start texting their friends, or pick up their phone somewhat ostentatiously to at least give the impression they’re texting someone, in order to avoid appearing unwanted or unpopular. This can become habitual whenever they are standing around a public place or social gathering with nothing to do. They figure it’s better to appear socially engaged and busy than look like a lost wallflower.

In an in-person group conversation, people who may feel nervous and like they don’t know what to say may retreat behind their phone as a crutch. Even in certain one-on-one situations they may resort to this behavior.


No next text?

One of the things that challenged-socially people complain about is that they’ll be texting someone, and then the other person will stop responding, seemingly out of nowhere. It may be in the middle of a longish exchange, or after only a few messages.

It can be confusing to be on the receiving end of this, and one may feel rejected and even that the other party behaved rudely. A person with social deficiencies who misinterprets normal textual behavior may feel that the person on the other end of that text is angry at them or they may have said something inappropriate, and this can lead to harmful emotional places.


Not understanding that the other person in a messaging exchange may be able to send only a message or two before they have to get back to whatever they were doing; a person with social challenges may not grasp why an immediate answer was not forthcoming. It’s not realistic to expect that every time you send someone a message, they wish to get into a lengthy conversation with you. There are other extenuating circumstances, for example sometimes when a person doesn’t reply to your text, it’s not that they were ending the conversation abruptly, but that they received the message, told themselves they were going to think of what to write in reply, and then got occupied by something else. People sometimes don’t reply to emails for the same reason.

In general, individuals who often misread social cues must be taught that it is good to be laid back and not expect people to properly wrap up every exchange: If someone stops texting you, don’t read too much into it. Most people will consider it awkwardly needy and clingy if they were to receive multiple follow-up messages asking where they went, or if they got your last text. Just contact them again a bit later on if you need to. This could cause peers to get annoyed and block you from their social media.


Texting when you balk to talk

Texting replaces many of the conversations that people used to have over the phone. As a form of communication texting, has a mix of pros and cons compared to speaking on the telephone. This is not necessarily a bad thing. For people who are scared of talking on the phone, though, this is a blessing and curse. They get to avoid a lot of nerve-racking spoken conversations by conducting them via text instead, but then when they do finally have to actually speak on the phone, it makes it that much more daunting.


No need for speed

Social guidelines regarding the response time issue have pretty much been established, yet individuals with social awkwardness lack awareness of the response time issue. Accordingly, they may get irritated when they text a friend or acquaintance, and he/she doesn’t get back to them instantly; even though they technically could have since they always carry their phone with them. Not counting the times when someone is genuinely occupied and unable to get to their phone; or their battery died; or the text didn’t go through right away; or the “new text” alert didn’t go off, it is not realistic to expect others to respond with alacrity to all of their run-of-the-mill messages as soon as they are received.


Texting allows people to be reached at any moment throughout the whole day, but they have the right to choose when to get back to you. It is comparable to you sending them an email. Maybe they’ll want to reply quickly, or they may decide to get to it later. The alternative is that they would be forced to get into an immediate conversation with everyone every time they send a text, regardless of what they are in the middle of.

Getting dejected or annoyed at someone for not responding at lightspeed makes socially awkward young people seem a bit insecure, at best. Worse, they may come across as downright possessive and controlling, doing inappropriate things like sending increasingly embarrassing follow-up messages because the person they texted didn’t respond to them soon enough.


Text ignored? Don’t be floored

It stings when you text someone and they never end up getting back to you. It’s always possible they were busy or forgot to reply, but a part of a troubled mind may be quick to go to darker places.


 “Do they just not like me?”


One shouldn’t rush to unwarranted conclusions. can never know for sure. There are usually more innocuous explanations based on the type of text sent, such as:


  • If the text was a self-contained observation, joke, update, photo, or link, the other party may have assumed you just wanted to share, and no response was necessary.

  • If the text was a question like “Hey, what’s new?” it may have been regarded as an invitation to get a conversation going, where they didn’t reply because they were not available to chat at the time.

  • If the text included an invitation, they may not have been interested or able to attend, assuming that their lack of response was the same as replying with a “Sorry, can’t make it this time.” Or they may have put off responding since they weren’t sure if they wanted to commit or not at that point. They might also not want to go, but not liking to turn people down, they opted for “radio silence.”


One needn’t make excuses for any of this. It is more considerate to fire off at least a quick reply. However, some people have a mindset where they think it’s justifiable to ignore some messages, thinking that if you really need to hear back from them you can always send a follow-up text.


While matters of this nature are instinctively understood by well-adjusted individuals, there is often a need to provide guidance and support to youngsters who to some degree lack the ability to smoothly navigate socially.



In conclusion

As parents of this generation, we need to be aware of and sensitive to what our loved ones are facing in this era of 24 x7 media accessibility and be able to guide them – especially if they have social deficits.

Parents who find it difficult to understand or address difficulties that are frustrating to their children should know that trained professional help is always available to reach out to troubled youngsters.

Ira Grotsky

Ira Grotsky holds duel degrees in psychology and Special Education and works as a mainstreaming specialist and Play Therapist. He has helped many individual with ASD, ADD/ADHD, Anger Management and Social issues.. Ira maintains a private practice in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh.and Modiin. He can be reached at [email protected] or 054-441-0256.
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