BY CONSERVATIVE estimates, American teenagers exchanged an average of 80 text messages a day in the fourth quarter of 2008, often to the tune of hundreds of dollars a month in cellphone charges. But research is starting to show that a teenager's texting may hurt more than the wallet.
Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, has spent the last three years researching texting habits of teens in the Boston area to determine how the practice affects their development.
Her findings suggest that teenagers' texting habit is slowing their emotional growth. "Years ago, if I saw a kid who talked to his mother 20 times a day, I would say he has an attachment problem," notes Turkle. "Now I interview hordes of college juniors and seniors who routinely text their moms while they're waiting at the bus." The lack of independence from parents means teens are not learning to make decisions on their own. The frequency of contact also plays into teen anxiety, she says. The insecurity of social questions - Who is there for me? Which clique am I in? - becomes constant.
Worse yet is the opportunity cost: Time teens spend texting is time that they don't socialize face-to-face. With more frequent electronic communication, teens give up real intimacy for the illusion of companionship. "The pressures of communicating at that velocity mean certain things aren't said," notes Turkle. "They need to have other places to have these important conversations."
Changing social norms cannot happen overnight, particularly for a generation so immersed in social technology that mere e-mail has become old school. But the most critical factor in changing teen social behavior can start in the home, with parents. In order for teens to act differently, parents have to be good role models. Turkle says the teens she interviews are complaining that parents do not look up from their own BlackBerrys when they get in the car. If parents excuse their own phone addiction, they cannot expect kids to be any better.
Turkle also suggests that parents put an emphasis on face time. Encouraging teens to bring friends home ensures they have social relationships that are not dependent on a phone. Even if teens surf the Internet in their time together, it is better than a teen alone in his room.
What is most important is to give teens a place to communicate in person and develop strong relationships. Prohibiting cellphones in the kitchen or dining room during dinner, for example, is a start. Creating a personal culture at home ensures that teens have somewhere to talk about important issues. There are many things that can't be said in 160 characters or less.