Why We Don’t Need to Worry About Constantly Texting Teens


Photo by Jeffrey Pott.

6.7.12 | Texting dozens of times per day, as many teenagers do, is nothing for adults to be overly concerned about, say researchers Alice Marwick and danah boyd.

In a recent article for The Daily Beast, Marwick and boyd write that while teens may be texting more than ever, little else has changed: “The core elements of high school life are fundamentally the same today as they were two decades ago: friends, relationships, grades, family, and the future.”

Marwick and boyd point to a study by Pew Internet and American Life Project that reported 63 percent of teenagers exchange text messages daily with people in their lives, compared to 39 percent who make cell phone calls and 35 percent who said they socialize face-to-face outside of school. Drawing on data from 2011, Pew researchers found that the median number of daily text messages sent by teens (ages 12-17) is 60. However, Marwick and boyd note that the teens they interviewed said they preferred socializing in person, but found this difficult due to parents, limited transportation, and a busy schedule.

“Far from being a source of isolation, the teen’s phone is a tether to loved ones; it is a personal object, a crucial connection,” wrote boyd and Marwick. The researchers also said that the internet and Facebook were integral aspects of teens’ connectivity. When asked to engage in a “media fast” for 24 hours, teens around the world reported feeling lonely and isolated without internet access—and access to social media sites in particular. Those conclusions were based on a study involving 1,000 students in 10 countries, conducted by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda in partnership with the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change.

Marwick and boyd summarize some of their findings about Facebook:

According to Pew, 80% of American teenagers are on Facebook, a rate borne out by our ethnographic work. In most of the communities we’ve worked in, teens will “friend” virtually everyone they recognize from school, making Facebook less like a collection of friends and more like a town hall meeting. It’s where young people learn the latest gossip, catch up with their peers, publicly reinforce relationships, and turn acquaintances into friends.

There are, of course, detriments to an increased dependency on social media. One of the difficulties they mention is teens’ attempting to maintain an “idealized identity,” while confronting harsh truths, like finding out the person you like is dating someone else, or not being invited to a party. Marwick and boyd note how, unlike the social struggles of the classroom that come to a close at the end of the day, Facebook never ends.

Far from being a source of isolation, the teen’s phone is a tether to loved ones; it is a personal object, a crucial connection.

– Alice Marwick and danah boyd

“The dramas and conflicts from school or practice follow young people home, and often continue into the evening,” they wrote. “For youths who struggle with insecurities, Facebook can amplify them. While Pew found that the majority of teens have positive experiences on Facebook, 88% of teens have witnessed mean or cruel behavior in social media.”

Marwick and boyd also discuss their findings about teens and privacy. Sharing Facebook passwords with friends, they write, is a sign of trust, despite how unnerving it may seem to parents and teachers. They compare it to the time-held ritual of sharing locker combinations.

“In the end, despite technology’s infiltration into almost every area of life, teens—like adults—have the same concerns they always did. Their social world may look different from that of their parents and grandparents, but when hasn’t it?” wrote Marwick and boyd. “Teens with strong social support will thrive regardless of whether they are talking to their friends in person, on the phone or through Facebook.”
And the opposite is also true—teens who are at-risk still need support, empathy and resources.

The conclusion? The way teens communicate is in constant flux, changing and adapting with the latest technologies. “The key,” they write, “is in helping young people to feel strong, confident, and capable, regardless of how they’re communicating.”

Related: Texting and driving is a known danger, yet 43 percent of teens admitted to texting while driving in a recent survey (pdf) of 1,200 teenagers ages 15 to 19, commissioned by AT&T. Findings also showed that 97 percent of those surveyed agreed that texting while driving is a bad practice, yet this appeared to have little effect on their decisions behind the wheel. Indeed, 77 percent of the teens surveyed say the adults who warn them not to text and drive do it themselves “all the time.” The U.S. News story also mentions several apps designed to reduce driver distraction from text messages.

These attitudes may explain the increased crackdown on adult and teens’ use of electronic devices behind the wheel. Ohio last week became the 39th state to ban texting while driving. It’s considered a secondary offense for adult drivers, meaning they could be ticketed for texting only in connection with another offense, such as running a red light. But teens face a higher risk for violating the ban, according to the AP.

The measure bans drivers under age 18 from using cellphones, iPads, laptops or other electronic devices. They can’t make calls or browse the Web while driving. Texting or using an electronic device is a primary offense for minors, so they can more easily get ticketed if an officer catches them violating the ban.

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