Should I worry about my teens texting?

By Michael Rich, MD:

Young black pretty girl using a cellophane.Q: I’ve noticed that many parents worry a lot about their children texting. But when we were kids, we would spend hours on the phone, sometimes not even talking much. When my teens are texting with friends at home, I liken it to those phone calls of yesteryear. I don’t allow texting during family meals or outings, but I am beginning to wonder if I should be worried about their texting. Is texting potentially problematic? Was that phone time even a potential problem for us back in the dinosaur days?

~ Ma Bell, USA

A: Dear Ma,

You are absolutely right that texting is today’s version of yesteryear’s adolescent phone call. There are differences, however, between texting someone and talking to someone on the phone. Texting may take less time overall, but often interrupts and distracts from other activities. Talking on the phone is a much more nuanced form of communication – you relay and read meaning by hearing the emotional tone, pauses, and rhythm of speech. Text is devoid of those details, (although in some cases, emoticons can help), so it can be susceptible to misinterpretation. For example, what may be considered friendly banter by the “sender” may be interpreted as an attack by the “receiver”.

Texting is also a less intimate form of communication than talking, both because lacks nuance and because it does not require that you be on the phone at the same time (or even be the person whose phone it is). Kids feel less exposed and thus emotionally safer. Which makes texting an especially attractive form of communication for tweens and teens, who are figuring out how to communicate with possible new friends or romantic interests. Texting these early attempts at more personal communication may be easier for the sender to send, but are often harder for the receiver to interpret. As an example, text communication can be subject to questions of how important a relationship may be based on how long it takes the other party to respond.

So while texting isn’t necessarily more problematic than talking on the phone, the challenges it poses are different. The important point to remember is that successful relationships need to build intimacy, moving through texting and other less-direct forms of communication to more direct connections. Many of us (adolescents and adults alike) use technology to distance ourselves from each other, so that the more connectivity we have, the less connected we actually are. I often recommend that, when people seek to reach out to someone they know, they upgrade their chosen form of communication by one. For example, if they are thinking of tweeting, text instead; if they are thinking of texting, pick up the phone and talk; if they are thinking of calling, get together in person. While intimacy is riskier, it is far richer in the end.

Enjoy your media, and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, and practices Adolescent Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is the Founder and Director of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) as well as a pediatrician, researcher, father, and media aficionado. As The Mediatrician®, Dr. Rich offers research-based answers parents’, teachers’, and clinicians’ questions about children’s media use and implications for their health and development.