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Teens Text A Lot, Adults Worry

Teens Text A Lot, Adults WorryI sometimes wonder if we’re not living in a mirror world every 20 or 30 years. Because it seems like that’s about the time period where some new technology comes along, and suddenly adults — almost always led by well-meaning doctors, child professionals and researchers — get up in arms about the negative effects of that technology on children.

With each significant technological development within society, we can go back into history and find newspaper and magazine reports about the potentially “harmful effects” of the technology, led by academics and researchers. For instance, it was very disturbing to many in society at the time when the radio entered into the American household and suddenly changed the nature of many families’ communications. Instead of reading or playing games, studying or going to bed, now the whole family gathered around the radio and tuned into the evening’s entertainment. “Shhh… I’m trying to listen!” There goes family conversation.

The television certainly didn’t help matters in the 1950s and 1960s, and the advent of the video game in the 1970s and 1980s just added to children’s and teens’ distractions away from the core family. Kids who grew up during these times didn’t turn out nearly as badly as some professionals thought they would. (Heck, even I managed to turn out okay, despite hours upon hours of video game playing every day in the 1980s.) Parents also couldn’t understand why their children spent so much time on that dang telephone, talking to their friends they just saw in school.

Texting Is The Next Generation’s Telephone Conversation

“Adolescents are using texting the way earlier generations used the telephone; they could check with their friends whether they’d perceived social situations and their implications in the same way,” notes Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

“[This is a critical component] to texting and other electronic social media: they combine intimacy with a degree of secrecy or anonymity.

“If I’m a 14-year-old girl and I send a classmate a text message, the recipient probably can’t tell whether I’m blushing or uncomfortable,” says Kutner. “Thus, I can raise issues that I might not feel secure enough to raise in a face-to-face conversation.”

Now we have the Internet, “Internet addiction,” and of course, the constant interruption of Twitter and Facebook status updates, and cell phone texting. But since there is very little scientific data on the actual ill effects of these newest technologies, all we are left with are the same expert opinions society has always turned to when fearing something new they see their children doing and don’t quite understand.

Can You Text and Still Be Independent?

MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, a well-known expert in the area of online behavior who’s been studying its effects for nearly as there has been an “online” to speak of, commented in the recent New York Times article on these concerns:

“Among the jobs of adolescence are to separate from your parents, and to find the peace and quiet to become the person you decide you want to be,” she said. “Texting hits directly at both those jobs.”

Psychologists expect to see teenagers break free from their parents as they grow into autonomous adults, Professor Turkle went on, “but if technology makes something like staying in touch very, very easy, that’s harder to do; now you have adolescents who are texting their mothers 15 times a day, asking things like, ‘Should I get the red shoes or the blue shoes?’ ”

I have to wonder at this observation. Are teens really texting their moms so much? Or are they more likely to be texting and doing most of their interactions with their peers? I would think it would be the latter, since most teens want to have as little interaction with their parents as possible. Perhaps texting is providing a valuable communications avenue to teens with their parents that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Teens often break free from their parents and communication with said parents drops precipitously as they move from early to mid and late teenage years. While some teens, of course, keep up a good relationship with their parents during this time, many do not. Communication virtually ceases, parents are at a loss as to what their teen is really up to, and communication — when it does occur — is often done in short bursts.

Texting, on the other hand, has the very real potential to reopen the communication channel between parents and teens. Even during this time of learning to become more and more independent, is it such a bad thing that teens now have the ability and a way of keeping in better touch with their parents?

Texting and Concentration

As for peace and quiet, she said, “if something next to you is vibrating every couple of minutes, it makes it very difficult to be in that state of mind.

“If you’re being deluged by constant communication, the pressure to answer immediately is quite high,” she added. “So if you’re in the middle of a thought, forget it.”

Yet this is not an especially new problem, and it occurs with virtually all technology-mediated communication in the Internet age. From emails to Twitter, from Facebook status updates to IM chatting, everywhere you go online is more of an interruption than it is reinforcing a person to engage in deep thought on a single topic. None of which is especially new — emails (and their constant interruption) have been with mainstream America now for over 15 years.

If anything, I’d suggest that teens are actually far better managers of such interruptions than most adults, because they are growing up with the technology as second nature. My parents never understood video games, and their parents never really “got” the point of the telephone. Is it no wonder that many adults, then, don’t understand how anyone can be productive in an environment where there is nothing but constant distraction?

The key is that teens and young adults don’t quite see these things as “distractions” the way some others do. Instead, they see them as potential social opportunities for further exchange and enrichment. Sometimes they play out and offer social rewards. Sometimes they don’t. The key is that if you view it as a possible opportunity — not simply as a distraction — then the reward/cost equation may change in favor of listening to the “distraction.”

Texting Is a Part of Teens’ Social Life

“It is their social life,” notes Dr. Larry Rosen, a professor at the California State University, Dominguez Hills.

“Growing up, we talked on the phone and uni-tasked. Teenagers today, though, hate to uni-task so they send texts, IM, Facebook updates, etc. — all ways for them to communicate, which is the watchword for their generation.

“Why are we surprised that when we supply our pre-teens with cell phones so that they can keep in touch with us, they find out that all their friends are texting so they do so too?”

None of this means that teens and young adults don’t know how to concentrate. They learn that skill just as with any other educational skill that helps them advance in school and college. But they are, I believe, also learning additional skills many of us don’t grasp yet — how to manage enormous amounts of information and interruptions in their workflow without it affecting their overall performance. That there’s no reason to ever be disconnected.

Another recent New York Times article adds this insight:

As for teenagers and texting, says Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft who studies the ways young people use technology, they’re just doing what they’ve always done: hanging out with their friends.

The cellphone makes it possible to bring your social circle to the dinner table. “You don’t really have to disconnect,” she said.

Perhaps it can be valuable to take a step back and consider why teens are engaging in these kinds of behaviors to the extent they are. It’s not just because “everyone’s doing it.” It’s because it offers them something of value and worth. To discount the behavior as unproductive or potentially not beneficial (or even “harmful”) — before the data is even in — is to discount the mind’s ability to grow and change with the ever-changing technology of the times.

It’s fine to observe these trends and make suppositions about what they mean. But until we have some actual research data, I’m not going to jump the gun and claim all the texting teens are doing is in any way “harmful” or doesn’t serve a valuable, developmental purpose. Because I very much suspect it does.

Read the full article at the New York Time: Texting May Be Taking a Toll on Teenagers

Also recommended: Play With Your Food, Just Don’t Text!

Teens Text A Lot, Adults Worry

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Teens Text A Lot, Adults Worry. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 29 May 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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