Children today are spending much more time on the internet, some still having to attend classes online, most using computers for homework assignments, and many spending some of their leisure time engaging on social media and in video games. 

Teens and young adults are playing multi-player personal shooter games while at the same time communicating with each other on the game chat or on a chat platform such as Discord. Within these chats is a dialogue known as Gamer Talk, an abundant dictionary of phrases and abbreviations known only to gamers. And this informal, coded way of communicating is now trickling into areas outside of the online gaming world.

I recently spoke with Associate Professor Judi McCuaig from the University of Guelph, in the field of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). While teaching online STEM courses, Professor McCuaig has noticed that many students don’t turn their cameras on for her to see them. When asking questions, they don’t turn on their microphone to speak directly to her. Instead, students type their questions into the chat bar, much like they would in a gaming chat platform. And even though it’s an informal setting and it’s a classroom, the students are not typing using words, they are typing using game speak and abbreviations. 

She also notes that email communication from students has become less and less formal. She has literally received emails from students that begin with, “Yo.” These emails are often filled with slang, and the students don’t provide background information that would allow the professor to understand the context of their request.. They seem to assume the professor knows the background. They provide her four options, much like a gamer would have in a video gaming dialogue. But unless one has been playing the game up until that point, they’d have no idea what these four things mean. 

Everything is typed in short form and in little phrases. They often list options in their email, much like a gamer would see in a video gaming dialogue. They seem to expect that the only possible responses to their query will be one of the options given, even though they often have overlooked some aspects of the problem at hand.

The anonymity of the faceless person on the internet has created a toxic culture on gaming platforms and that has now bled into areas outside of games, such as classrooms.

Gamers can also spend several hours a day or week engaged in chats in online environments that can be extremely toxic, full of racism, sexism, slang, and rivalry.

Professor McCuaig has also noticed inappropriate comments made, student-to-student, in her classrooms. In her STEM classes, there are issues of racism, overtly sexist language, dismissal of ideas, constant mansplaining, and belittling of the opposite sex much like we often see in some gaming communities. 

In conversations in the classroom, online chats, video games, and email communication, students transition to and from various platforms, morphing together different forms of expression as though they all belong in the same template. 

But they do not.

So, how do we get students, especially young, male students to make the transition to different forms of communication both online and in person?

Professor McCuaig’s message is that young people need to understand that they can have multiple roles in the world, and that they can behave and communicate in ways that are appropriate to each of those roles. And that changing their persona does not mean that they are being fake. Their role in their video game and on gaming platforms, such as Discord, are not to be considered bad or meaningless. Role playing has many benefits. But they also have other roles that they need to learn how to work in.

Parents and teachers can teach and reiterate this at a young age in the home. There’s the dinner time conversation and the play time conversation. Children learn how to say no to grandma versus saying it to a sibling – two contrasting languages. Different communication styles can be used in public school by communicating casually with friends versus communicating more formally with teachers. What we need to teach children is that it’s okay to state what you need, regardless of who you’re communicating with. The process they use to state that need might be slightly different with different situations and people. Words they choose will be appropriate to the context. 

Professor McCuaig provided a great analogy – “imagine the world of the auto mechanic shops in the early days of the automobile; there was a world with a language that other people didn’t understand. Those people who did understand it, the mechanics, knew that they could use that language in the shop, but they didn’t take it home and expect their family to use the same language.” 

Kids are spending much more time on the internet now, especially while living through a pandemic in the last twenty months, so changing up their dialogue, between both in-person and on the information highway, has seemingly become a more difficult transition for them. They need our help.

Those who can master communication to all levels, in any environment, tend to be seen as easily adaptable and progress further in their interactions, which culminates in eventual success.

In this new age of technology, appropriate communication rules and boundaries need to be discussed. We need to help children navigate in a way that is respectful to others while still allowing them to express in their own language amongst their peers.