Can texting by teens reach a danger level?

January 26, 2010 at 5:46 pm Leave a comment

By Aisha Sultan



Emily Tedford, 13, is having dinner with her parents at a Brazilian restaurant, and 20 of her closest friends know she has ordered the grilled pineapple and banana.

It’s just one of hundreds of text messages she’ll send tonight.

Emily, an A student in St. Charles, sends nearly 20,000 texts a month, as she has for the last two years since she got her phone. She is one of the übertexters, with the phone pad chronically attached to her thumbs.

Her parents, Paul and Rebecca Tedford, aren’t too concerned. They periodically monitor the texts on her phone to make sure it’s typical teenage chatter. If they find something inappropriate (such as when she posted questionable song lyrics on Facebook), they make her remove the post and issue a public apology. (They even had her write a report about the origin of said lyrics.) Of course, they subscribe to an unlimited texting phone plan.

They figure that even while sending more than 600 texts a day, Emily still keeps up with school, plays the drums and runs track. She clearly has plenty of friends, and a few of them also rack up more than 15,000 texts a month.

“For the most part, we have a really good kid,” Paul Tedford said.

They did have to take her to the doctor once when her wrists started hurting. It was tendinitis.

But are hundreds of texts a day the new normal? And because today’s tweens and teens would rather text than talk, what kind of adults will they grow up to become?

Among the teens who say they text, the average number of text messages they send and receive in a month is about 3,500, based on a query in the Kaiser Family Foundation’s recent report on children and media use. With the spread of smart phones and popularity of unlimited texting plans, use of text messaging has skyrocketed.

AT&T’s data from the third quarter of 2007 show that nearly 66 million subscribers sent 24 billion text messages. Two years later, in the most recent third quarter, about 82 million users sent 120 billion texts.

As parents of teens can attest, texting is frequently the easiest way to keep tabs, get a response and avoid hearing attitude. Some may lament the loss of personal contact, perhaps the demise of civility and an inability to fully experience a moment. But others point out that members of polite society in the late 1800s thought telephones ought to be installed in barns. They were considered just as intrusive and impersonal.

“It’s debatable to talk about what is a pathologized amount of texting,” said Amanda Lenhert, a senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

There may be plenty of kids who send thousands of texts a month but are able to still talk to people, read a variety of things, get outside and do other activities, she said.

It may seem like a parody of a Sprint commercial, but many teens are most comfortable sharing their most intimate feelings through this shorthand language, according to Gary Rudman, chief executive officer of GTR Consulting, which offers trend reports on teens and technology.

When asked by GTR about the sort of things they prefer to text, one teen responded that she would rather text “when it’s something really sad or something not that important to talk about.” Another wrote: “Guys always break up with you on SMS (short message service). They don’t want to hear you cry.”

Emily agrees. “I think it’s easier to say anything with text messages,” she said. “You can’t stutter, it’s not as awkward-feeling. I feel more comfortable talking to people that way.”

It’s this avoidance of conflict and lack of human interaction that worries psychologists such as Sherry Turkle, director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is writing a book, “Together Alone: Sociable Robots, Digitized Friends and the Reinvention of Intimacy and Solitude,” to be published next year.

“You lose something if you don’t talk,” she said. Teens need to learn how to respond and pick up on verbal cues, how to spontaneously respond to questions without having to compose or construct a response and how to effectively handle confrontation.

“They don’t have that developmental skill,” she said.

In the last billing cycle, Emily used her phone to send 19,657 texts and spent 102 minutes talking on the phone. “And an hour of that was probably spent talking to me,” her mother said.

Turkle argues that there also are opportunity costs. What else would children be doing in the hours they are currently spending on text messaging? There is a value to stillness, which most children today cannot fathom, in taking an undistracted walk or looking out a window without constant vibrations from a phone interrupting their thoughts.

The teen years are critical in discovering one’s identity, she said. When the most common form of communication allows the child to construct an identity, compose the persona he wants to project, it stymies development, she said. It is a less authentic version of a teen’s self, she said.

She does not recommend taking away a cell phone. The trick is to look critically at how we behave with our phones.

“This is the communication device of their generation. Everyone has to live in (his or her) generation,” she said.


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