A study by the Pew Research Center and the University of Michigan found that nearly one out of three kids between 12 and 17 years old sent 100 or more texts a day. Seventy-five percent of the teens in the study owned cell phones and that figure is rising fast.
Indeed, for teenagers, texting is the form of communication that is preferred above all others. They text during meals, while they are brushing their teeth, while they are going to school, during classes (when teachers have not banned cell phones), in the cafeteria, while doing homework, and before going to bed. Most sleep with their cell phones or keep them near the bed. Sometimes they text and drive, which leads to accidents.
One of my teen-aged therapy patients reported that she and her friends were even texting each other while they were watching a movie together. I asked her why they couldn’t just whisper to each other. Her answer: “I don’t know. It just seems more interesting if you text it.”
Some are calling this obsession with texting an addiction, and I think they are right. And not only teenagers are texting but also a great many young adults and even older adults. However, it seems that the younger you are, the more likely that most of your communication is in the form of texting.
Like my patient, many young people can’t tell you exactly why they like texting so much. This is a clue that the urge to text comes from an unconscious source. I believe that source is a fear of intimacy. Texting appears to allow for protective communication. By texting, you can hide your tone of voice and your facial expression. You can engage in pseudo social exchanges without giving away how you really feel or dealing with other people’s feelings. You keep a protective distance between yourself and others.
Albert Mehrabian, a psychologist who did pioneering research on nonverbal communication, found that people primarily determine the meaning of what others are saying by their body language rather than by their words. A person can say “I love you,” in many different ways, using an array of voice intonations and facial expressions. If a husband tells his wife, “Yes, I love you,” while grimacing, she pays more attention to his grimace than to his words.
Unfortunately, while texting makes it less threatening for young people to socialize, it also has byproducts. The pitfalls can be both emotional and physical.
A report in Matzov.com cited sixteen-year-old Annie Levitz, who was sending about 4,000 texts per month. She now has carpal tunnel syndrome and needs surgery. “I started, like, losing feeling in my hands and they’d go numb and I’d be going to pick up dishes and things and they would just fall out of my hands,” she said.
Like any addiction, texting can become an obsession that interferes with normal functioning. We have not begun to study how texting will affect the body and the brain in the long term. But we do know that addictive behaviors such as alcoholism and obesity have been correlated with changes in the brain.
From a psychological standpoint, this texting addiction prevents teenagers from developing the emotional skills to have genuine and lasting relationships, to go on job interviews, and generally to resolve problems with others. Emotional intelligence is one of the hardest things to learn, not only for individuals but for countries. Every relationship, whether it is between individuals or between groups of people, depends on the effectiveness of the emotional communication.
It should also be recognized that the obsession with texting does not spring from nowhere; if teens are avoiding emotional communication, it reflects the fact that it isn’t taught or modeled in their families. Hence, parents need to be aware that if they want their kids to change they need to lead the way.
What will become of our texting teenagers as they ascend the ladder of adulthood? How will they affect our society, our culture? Will we become a nation of solipsists that can never connect with other people?
Let us say, in reply, that there may be a reason for concern.