Parents these days for the most part are either forced to worry about what their kids are doing on the internet and social media or choose to ignore it. Even if you are one of the parents who is very aware of what your teen is doing on social media, you may have something to worry about that you haven’t yet considered – subtweeting.
Subtweet is an abbreviation of “subliminal tweet.” In a subtweet, a Twitter user posts a message about someone without explicitly mentioning their name, which can done by referencing either their Twitter handle or real name, i.e. Boy, @ThirdParent knows a lot about social media. Alternately, a subtweet can mention someone’s real name, especially when that person is unlikely to see the tweet.
Subtweets aren’t necessary malicious. If you see a subtweet used by your teen, it could be that she is talking about a crush, or harmlessly omitting a name because her close friends know who she is referencing. It can, however, be used for bullying, harassment or other passive aggressive messages that she wouldn’t want school officials or you to be seeing. It’s the online version of talking about someone behind their back.
According to Maryland high school newspaper the Churchill Observer:
The comments are specific enough to make clear to the reader who is being discussed without explicitly saying his or her name. The writer can deny the offense, but everyone else in his or her circle knows who is being targeted.
The Pew Internet report on Teens, Social Media and Privacy which came out this month took an in depth look at how teens are using the internet, including employing devices such as subtweets. An interesting take on the topic comes from Microsoft’s danah boyd writing at zephoria.org, where she sums it up better than I could:
My favorite finding of Pew’s is that 58% of teens cloak their messages either through inside jokes or other obscure references, with more older teens (62%) engaging in this practice than younger teens (46%). This is the practice that I’ve seen significantly rise since I first started doing work on teens’ engagement with social media. …teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them – parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc.
Over the last few years, I’ve watched as teens have given up on controlling access to content. It’s too hard, too frustrating, and technology simply can’t fix the power issues. Instead, what they’ve been doing is focusing on controlling access to meaning. A comment might look like it means one thing, when in fact it means something quite different. By cloaking their accessible content, teens reclaim power over those who they know who are surveilling them.
So, many of the more savvy teens know their actions are being watched on social media and instead of using an alias or leaving the network altogether, they and are taking steps to conceal some true meaning. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it is little different from passing a note to a friend in class. If it is used as a platform to facilitate bullying, perhaps to a larger audience than previously possible, it is obviously a bad thing. Parents need to stick with the basics: make sure teens know the difference between right and wrong, and take an active interest in how they are using social media.
Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring teen internet activity.