Group chat dynamics for tweens and teens can be toxic. Here's how parents can help navigate the drama.

Kids with their devices photo illustration
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

In tween and teen group chats, sometimes 30 or more participants text each other on a nonstop loop, everything from emojis and FOMO-inducing photos to cries for mental health help. For parents, navigating the drama can be a major challenge.

"Generally, these chats are chaos mixed in with hurt feelings, but you can’t cut them off because then your kid is left out of ‘connection,’” the mother of a 13-year-old in California tells Yahoo Life. She found out the hard way — when her phone number accidentally wound up in her kid’s group chat. “It was 24 hours of Bitmojis, memes and ‘you're gay’ — a nonsensical cellular assault —until I finally said, ‘Please remove me from this list. I’m a mom,’” prompting merciless teasing of her kid.

“My son’s friend kept threatening to kill himself to a group chat of about 15 kids,” the New York mom of a 13-year-old says. “They were in sixth grade, so no one knew what to do, as they were all way out of their depth. ... Luckily, enough of them told their parents. But it was a distressing situation.”

Sometimes it starts even earlier, says the New Jersey stepmom of a 10-year-old, who tells Yahoo Life that the level of bullying she's seen in text form is “ruthless.” The kids are often in at least five different group chats at once, she says, which “become a vehicle for bullying when certain individuals in the chat start to kick various girls out of the group, then openly talk about them in front of 20 other ‘friends.’” It all leaves her daughter feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

So why are group chats so popular? Here, experts weigh in on the dynamics at play, and how parents can help their kids.

The appeal of group texting

Sometimes it just comes down to what a kid has available to them. “A lot of parents are allowing texting before social media, which I think is thoughtful,” as the potential for damage is wider on the apps, says Devorah Heitner, author of Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World and Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. “Texting is where they are.”

But it’s appealing to adolescents — particularly those in middle school, which Heitner calls “ground zero” for the most intense group chat dynamics — because it’s “very immediate,” significantly more so than social media. “Unless you're DM-ing that many people, it actually doesn’t work in the same way. ... I might or might not see what you post [on social media], whereas group text is a very direct way to meet with your classmates.”

In a way, adds Katie Davis, author of Technology’s Child: Digital Media's Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up and associate professor at the University of Washington, tweens turning to this specific type of communication is right in line with where they are developmentally, i.e., when they start to focus a lot of attention on friend groups.

“And they’re doing really important developmental work — I actually think of it as their ... developmental job to negotiate friendship dynamics and develop their social relationships. They’re also doing really important identity work,” Davis, who directs UW’s Digital Youth Lab, tells Yahoo Life. Middle school is also when “an explosion” of kids first get their own phones (though some will have gotten them earlier).

“So you’ve got this combination of kids wanting to spend more time with their friends, and not necessarily being able to get around on their own ... so the phone and group chat becomes a really convenient way to connect with friends when you’re not at school,” she says. “We saw this really clearly during the pandemic and during lockdown.”

The risks of group chats

“We don’t tend to teach our kids enough about texting,” notes Heitner. “We tend to worry more about social media and things like TikTok or gaming, and we sort of take for granted that they’ll learn something on their own.” But she urges parents to do more “explicit teaching” about texting, “because they’re literally watching us do it, but they’re not learning from the way we heard our parents on the phone.”

Davis says that while allowing group texting before social media does make sense, it’s “not necessarily safer,” rather, it comes with a different set of risks. Whereas social media presents “questionable messages," including about beauty standards and body image from a “really broad group of people,” group chats tend to stoke the type of “relational aggression that’s so common among early teens and particularly girls,” especially when it comes to excluding, bullying or ostracizing.

Part of it is due to a phenomenon known as “online disinhibition,” says Heitner, in which people say things online that they’d never say in person. “It’s also easy to be like, ‘Oh, I forgot this person was in [the chat], so I’m gonna talk in a negative way or gossip about that person.’ And then it also becomes a vehicle for exclusion — like, ‘let's restart the group text without Shayna,’ or by kicking kids out of the chat with the touch of a button or sharing photos of just a select few having fun together.

“When they post on social, it’s actually a little less clear [who will see it], but if you message a picture of you and three other girls hanging out to a group of 15 girls? That absolutely is intentional,” says Heitner, adding that another risk of communicating this way is that of kids sharing screenshots of texts to embarrass each other.

The potential benefits

It’s not a long list, but at the top, says Heitner, is that “it does kind of give kids a sense of a place where they can be more confessional” without having to be face-to-face. “And I think kids are using it to build space — that’s why a lot of kids are sort of spamming the group text with just emojis because they’re bored.”

But while it is positive that a kid in crisis might feel safe sharing details with the group, it’s likely a case of barking up the wrong tree — especially if you’re a tween or younger.

“Kids who want that kind of mental health support might do better when they’re older — like, say you’re in ninth grade and you reach out to your three besties. You might actually get a pretty supportive response,” explains Heitner. "But in sixth grade, reaching out to the full group text, you’ve got more immature peers less able to be helpful. And ... it’s equally likely that someone will tease you or mock you as be nice to you. And they might deflect, because that’s what 11-year-olds do. A 15-year-old might at least be more compassionate.”

What parents can do — both before and after the drama

A good first step is finding ways to limit your child’s screen time — which, at the very least, means keeping the phone out of their room overnight, when they are without supervision and when things really tend to go south in a group chat.

Other recommendations include:

Refrain from snooping. “I’m really for mentoring over monitoring,” says Heitner, meaning you’d sit down and make decisions together. “But ideally you’re not doing anything covert, where you’re monitoring and they don’t know, because then you’re painting yourself kind of in a parenting corner. Like, what do you do if you do see something problematic and you didn’t tell them you were monitoring?”

Plus, Davis warns, taking a sneak peek is “a sure way to shut down communication and break trust. And without that, you may see that particular text, but there’s so much more you’re going to miss out on because your child’s not going to trust you. The communication lines are going to close down.”

Parenting-monitoring apps or other software can be fine to use, she adds, as long it’s done “in conversation and negotiation with your child.”

Empower them to self-monitor. “At a certain point, kids need to take their own responsibility,” says Heitner. “You know, like if somebody’s being gross with a ninth or 10th grader, hopefully they’ll be able to just say, “Hey, I don’t like the way you’re speaking,’ or even just, ‘I’m getting out of this text now’ or just leave.” She suggests inviting them to “use you as an excuse — even if you’re not monitoring. Like, if the group text is getting really gross ... your kid can, at any time, ‘My parents look at my phone. This is going a little too far.’ Up to like, sixth grade, maybe seventh, that would really be a good out.”

Encourage open communication. Heitner suggests asking your kid “to share with you what’s going on every few weeks or every few days even.” And also asking them to notice how it’s making them feel, and to think of ways to self-regulate. You might say, “If it’s making you feel bad, can you mute it? Can you put it away when you’re doing homework? Is this causing distraction and stress for you? What can you do to take a break?”

Davis advises asking frequently how it’s been going, and not to assume that silence means all is OK. “And it’s not just limited to bullying. ... there could be a friend on your group chat who’s expressing suicidal ideation or just some sort of mental distress, and they get these desperate messages in the middle of the night. For a child who’s 12 or 13, that’s a big burden for them to carry.”

Bottom line, says Davis, group-chat drama presents good opportunities to talk to your kid about a range of issues, from what exclusion looks like to how to offer support — and to do so without judgment or anger. “I think just coming at these conversations with a tremendous amount of openness and empathy,” she says, “is very important.”