Monday, September 7, 2009

For Teens, Has Texting Replaced Talking?

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I've always known my kids use digital communications gear a lot. But my cellphone bill last month really grabbed my attention.

My son had racked up nearly 2,000 incoming text messages, and had sent nearly as many. That means he was having more than 60 two-way communications via text message every day. Of course, he was out of school for the summer and communicating more with friends from a distance. Nevertheless, I had to wonder how he found time to hold down a summer job and complete a college course in between all that typing with his thumb.

I was even more surprised to learn that my son is normal. Teenagers with cellphones each send and receive 2,272 text messages a month on average, Nielsen Mobile says.

Some experts lament that all that keyboard jabber is making our kids stupid – unable to read nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, posture and other silent signals of mood and attitude. Unlike phones, text messaging doesn't even allow transmission of tone of voice or pauses, says Mark Bauerlein, author of a book called "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future."

States are cracking down on drivers who text, and rightly so. My son doesn't text while driving, and we have discussed the dangers. (This graphic public service announcement, which has recently gone viral on YouTube, highlights just how dangerous texting while driving can be.)

Beyond that, though, I'm not sure I see as much harm as critics of this trend. I've posted before on how I initially tried to curb my kids' texting. But over time, I have seen my son suffer no apparent ill effects (except a sore thumb now and then), and he reaps a big benefit, of easy, continuing contact with many friends. Also, the time he spends texting replaces the hours teens used to spend on the phone; both my kids dislike talking on the phone, and say they really don't need to do so to stay in touch with friends and family.

Does texting make kids stupid? I don't think so. It may make them annoying, when they try to text and talk to you at the same time. And it may make them distracted, when buzzing text messages interrupt efforts to noodle out a calculus problem or finish reading for school.

But I don't see texting harming teens' ability to communicate. My son is as attuned to nonverbal cues as any older members of our family. If anything, I have found him more engaged and easier to communicate with from afar, because he is constantly available via text message and responds with a faithfulness and speed that any mother would find reassuring.

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