A mother with her three teenage daughters sat in my office the other day. Two of the girls were there for sick visits. The third sister was just along for the ride. When I walked into the room, all three girls had their heads buried in their cell phones, thumbs pumping furiously, texting away. No one even looked up.
The mom and I started to chat about the symptoms the sick girls were exhibiting. But the mother was either distracted by the clicking or felt the girls were being rude, and she soon made the two sick teens turn their phones off.
The pair grudgingly obeyed, sticking the devices in their purses, but not before whining, “Why doesn’t she have to stop?” “Because she’s not the one with the doctor’s visit,” Mom replied. “But she’s the one who’s texting us!” the girls protested in unison.
I was speechless. Here were three sisters in a room together communicating with their thumbs. That encounter really hammered home to me just how plugged in we have all become. We are suffused daily in a multitude of digital communication options.
According to a recent Pew research study, one in three teens sends or receives over 100 text messages a day. It’s not that texting is inherently bad. Like many other forms of communication, it has the potential to keep us connected. But Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other suggests that while constant texting may give the appearance of increased connectedness, these technologies may actually be keeping us isolated from each other. She argues that “Facebooking” is not socializing. “Thumbs up or thumbs down on a web site is not a conversation.”
Texting can also be dangerous. Texting while driving can be so deadly that it is banned in many states. When I’m at the gym, I cringe watching folks text while walking down stairs or running on treadmills. They look like accidents waiting to happen, like that poor woman whose YouTube video went viral when she fell into a fountain texting while she walked at a mall.
Children should be taught to turn off their cell phone when engaged in any activity that requires their full attention: school, homework, babysitting. Children also need to understand that some forms of texting—like sexting (sending nude or inappropriate photos in a text message) or cyber-bullying (sending mean, taunting or embarrassing text messages)—can have disciplinary consequences at school and even legal ramifications.
Another new issue being raised about texting is its effect on teens’ sleep. We are learning more and more about teens who bring their cell phones into their bedrooms and text long into the night.
Technology is developing at a rate that may be faster than our ability to monitor it and ensure its safe use. Parents should have frank conversations with their children about the dangers of texting and driving and the negative emotional and sometimes legal consequences of sexting and cyberbullying. Parents should review their children’s text logs to see who is texting them, when and how often. Limits can be placed on the number of texts sent and received as well as the hours texting is allowed. And parents can certainly confiscate phones after a reasonable hour, if necessary.
We need to be good role models for our children as well. While many parents take their kids’ cell phones away from them during our office visits so we can have face-to-face conversations, I have just as many parents who themselves text during our visits. We have to be careful what kind of example we set. My heart breaks whenever I see a mom or dad texting in the bleachers of their kid’s big game instead of watching their child play. If we are disengaged from our children, can it be long before they’ll disengage from us?
Kids texting photo available from Shutterstock