Our communication habits are changing faster than in any other period throughout history. More than 80 percent of American 18- to 34-year-olds prefer nonverbal communication mediums in daily life. We are witnessing not only the demise of the landline phone, but possibly also the end of the phone call itself. In my new book Texting in Sick: How Smartphones, Texting, and Social Media are Changing Our Relationships, I’m documenting the factors behind these massive changes as well as their social implications.
Most people are probably unaware that text messaging, when it was first conceived, was not intended for person-to-person use. When SMS saw the light of day back in 1993, its original purpose was to allow operators to send concise service updates to their subscribers. However, as it often happens with technology, unique social uses emerge when in the hands of users. That became true for SMS as well.
Young people adopted the technology as a way to send quick messages to friends and parents. This trend really took off with the invention of integrated, on-screen keyboards in smartphones and the introduction of messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, which made texting both much quicker and cheaper.
Texting and social media have become so popular that the average American now spends 4.7 hours a day on his or her phone. Here are a few reasons:
Parents today are more worried about their children’s safety than just a few decades ago. Many choose to drive their children to school instead of letting them walk or bike with their peers. In the wake of 9/11, we’ve seen the rise of the modern Tiger Mother, who does everything humanly possible to protect, monitor and support her children 24/7.
Smartphones and texting play an important role in this micromanagement equation. By allowing children to own and carry smartphones, they are never more than a phone call or a text message away. This laid the foundation for a general social acceptance of children using smartphones (which was almost unheard of when cell phones first came out) and simultaneously made texting the predominant communication form among young people.
- Anxiety and risk aversion.
Compelling scientific evidence is piling up arguing that young people today are more anxious than they were in the past. They are also less likely to take risks early on in life, such as moving to another state or moving out of their parents’ house to live on their own. Texting is a perfect match for someone seeking to limit anxiety and risk because it contains fewer social cues (voice, body language, facial gestures, etc.) than in-person communication. It takes the edge off of a potentially anxiety-provoking encounter if it can be handled on your smartphone.
In my research I found that it is now extremely common for millennials to resort to texting in contexts where anxiety levels are high. For example, 38 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds use text-based media like email and texting to deliver bad news to others. Sixty-four percent of 18- to 34-year-olds have had arguments on text and 55 percent would consider using text messaging to break up with a partner.
Young people today have internalized a drive for efficiency and practicality. We want to reach our goal as quickly and smoothly as possible. Most mobile apps are designed to accommodate that very purpose by offering us quick fixes to almost any problem we might face. This logic applies to messaging apps as well. Communication needs to be fast, to the point, and finish the “task” of communicating with others as quickly as possible. There is no time wasted on linguistic handshaking (small talk) in text messages.
However, as hinted earlier, the convenience of texting comes at a price. If we limit social cues and apply pragmatic thinking in situations where stakes are high and complex emotions need to be negotiated — for example when we break up with someone or deliver some important news — we risk appearing inauthentic and thereby compromise the trust and respect we receive from others.
Smart phone image available from Shutterstock