Don’t send too many messages. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want screenshotted. If the group chat goes quiet, it might mean there’s a smaller, more exclusive group chat that you’re not a part of. If you want to post on Instagram, send the batch of photos you’re considering and let everyone weigh in on their favorites. Share your location. You might get kicked out but you could also be added back in. And don’t even bother if you have an Android.
Welcome to the world of teenagers’ group chats. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is.
These are only some of the ever-changing rules and best practices teens keep in mind while texting their friends and classmates. In the decade since Apple introduced group chats capabilities to iPhone users, the group chat has become an intricate social tool that is able to cement or decimate friendships and plummet or improve social standing. Nowhere are these possibilities more present than the group chats of teenagers.
When it comes to group chat dynamics, size matters. Teddy Bratman, who is 17 and uses they/them pronouns, says the etiquette changes depending on how many people are involved. “If there’s 15 or 20 people, you can’t really text,” Teddy says. “Sometimes I’ll be so in the moment that I’ll be texting a lot and then I catch myself, like, shoot, I just sent five texts in a row, I should probably stop.” But in their more intimate group chats with their two best friends, they’re free to send as many texts as they want: about the mundane details of their day or what they’re planning to wear or the link to a TikTok that made them laugh.
In larger group chats, there seems to be an unspoken understanding that there are smaller group chats that grow out of it. Sometimes, the smaller group chats consist mostly of screenshots from the larger group chat with commentary attached (like, Teddy says, “look what that person said – isn’t that weird?”). The knowledge that smaller group chats may spring from larger ones is the same worry that has always plagued teenagers refastened in 21st-century context: are they being excluded? Samantha Baran, 17, “always worries” her friends are texting each other exclusively outside of their group chat and that they could be talking about her. “I absolutely hate that feeling,” she says. Those worries are soothed by the smaller group chat she’s in with her two best friends, where she doesn’t worry as much about the possibility of being excluded.
The trio has their location services turned on for each other, though Sam says they don’t usually check each other’s location unless “they’re not responding to me for a while or they’re acting strange.” The question of whether your location is turned on varies from group chat to group chat – some find it comforting to know exactly where their friends are at all times while others prefer more privacy. But location services can also tell your friends things you may not be ready to share. (Silence from you on the group chat? Your friends may check your location and realize you’re at your ex’s apartment, before you were ready to tell anyone. It’s an anecdote that happens with some regularity.)
For teenagers, the activity level of the group chat can offer much-needed clues about the status of their friendships. “What happens in the group chat is what’s actually happening in the friendship,” 19-year-old Jacob Marson says. “It’s really symbolic of the actual health of your friend group. I’ve noticed that as people start getting distant in real life, the group chat starts getting more and more empty.” If you’re neglecting the group chat, you may be seen as neglecting the friendship.
Then there’s the possibility of getting kicked out of the group chat (or leaving on your own accord). Someone could be removed from a group chat for an assortment of chat crimes, like not being active enough, branching out into other friendship groups or just being rude to someone else in the chat. Jacob has found himself leaving group chats “if there’s spamming with memes or annoying things,” or if the friendships the chat symbolizes have run their course. “Then sometimes you just need to leave for your own mental sanity,” Jacob says. Of course, if you decide you want to rejoin the group, “then you can ask someone to bring you back if you want to be added back.”
And the one thing to really remember about group chats: Anything you text can and will be screenshotted. Once, 18-year-old Cameron Driggers was in a group chat when his friend screenshotted it to comment about it in a side chat. But instead of sending it to another friend, the screenshot was sent back to the group chat with a pointed comment about the contents. Cameron and his friend immediately leaped into action. “We spammed the group chat with random letters and words so the screenshot would go all the way to the top and no one would scroll to the top to see it,” he says. “I think it worked.”