The Hottest Chat App for Teens Is … Google Docs

How a writing tool became the new default way to pass notes in class

When the kids in Skyler’s school want to tell a friend something in class, they don’t scrawl a note down on a tiny piece of paper and toss it across the room. They use Google Docs.

“We don’t really pass physical notes anymore,” said Skyler, 15, who, like all the other students in this story, is identified by a pseudonym.

As more and more laptops find their way into middle and high schools, educators are using Google Docs to do collaborative exercises and help students follow along with the lesson plan. The students, however, are using it to organize running conversations behind teachers’ backs.

Teens told me they use Google Docs to chat just about any time they need to put their phone away but know their friends will be on computers. Sometimes they’ll use the service’s live-chat function, which doesn’t open by default, and which many teachers don’t even know exists. Or they’ll take advantage of the fact that Google allows users to highlight certain phrases or words, then comment on them via a pop-up box on the right side: They’ll clone a teacher’s shared Google document, then chat in the comments, so it appears to the casual viewer that they’re just making notes on the lesson plan. If a teacher approaches to take a closer look, they can click the Resolve button, and the entire thread will disappear.

If the project isn’t a collaborative one, kids will just create a shared document where they’ll chat line by line in what looks like a paragraph of text. “People will just make a new page and talk in different fonts so you know who is who,” Skyler said. “I had one really good friend, and we were in different homerooms. So we’d email each other a doc and would just chat about whatever was going on.” At the end of class, they’ll just delete a doc or resolve all the comments. Rarely does anyone save them the way previous generations may have stored away paper notes from friends.

Chatting via Google Docs doesn’t just fool teachers; it also tricks parents. When everyone logs on to do homework at night, Google Docs chats come alive. Groups of kids will all collaborate on a document, while their parents believe they’re working on a school project. As a Reddit thread revealed in February, chatting via Google Docs is also a great way to circumvent a parental social-media ban.

Like the paper notes of yore, most Google Docs chat is banal. Kids use it to talk about the day’s happenings at school, plan for prom, gossip, flirt, and bully one another. In a blog post, Bark, an app that parents can use to monitor their child’s phone use, cautioned parents about kids ganging up on other children in Google Docs: “They work in tandem to write mean or hurtful things in a shared Google Doc. In other cases, kids create private, digital ‘burn books’ and invite others to contribute while leaving out the teased child,” the post read. But teens said this type of use is rare. “People just talk shit about teachers, or be like, talking about their days. It will be the most boring stuff, but it’s the only way to get any message across to each other,” Skyler said.

Kids in classrooms that don’t use Google Docs turn to whatever collaborative learning software they do have to communicate. The online version of Microsoft Word, for example, has features similar to Google Docs and can be exploited the same way. Nathan, a 16-year-old from the Philadelphia suburbs, told me he and his friends “found out there’s a ‘collaboration space,’ where you can upload documents to share with your class,” in his school’s preferred note-taking software, OneNote. “So we just draw pics with the highlighter tool and upload memes into the shared folder.” Nathan said he and his classmates were excited to discover the group-messaging functionality last year, because “it looks like you’re being productive.” But, he added, “the drawback is that you’re not working on what you’re supposed to be working on, so you don’t get anything done.”

While Google Docs chat may be the hottest communication tool for middle and high schoolers, most teenagers abandon it once they get to college. Skye, a 20-year-old from outside Boston, said that thinking about Google Docs chatting made her nostalgic. “Chatting on Google Docs is very reminiscent of when we were younger,” she said. And paper notes? “I haven’t passed a physical note to someone since fifth grade,” she said.