By Scott Alexander
Technologically speaking, shooting off 160-character messages is only a slight bump up from instant messaging. But the social impact has been seismic. Texting dwarfs all other forms of communication for today's teens. According to trend trackers at Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center, in February 2008, 38% of teens sent text messages daily, a figure that jumped to 54% by September 2009. Now, a year later, the number is undoubtedly higher still. The same study found that the average high school girl sent 100 text messages each day, or around 3,000 per month, and 15% of teens were sending more than 200 texts a day.
But if you examined what's actually in those messages, it's highly likely they're saying the same things you said to your friends when you were their age, just in an abbreviated form. Yet while the content may be the same, the medium is fundamentally different, with its own distinct texture and pace. Longhand letters are considered elegant and charming. The telephone allows resounding emotion to bridge great distances instantly. Texting is the ornery love child of the two—fast and impulsive, young and without nuance, atomized and eternally available. And it's transforming the fabric of our children's lives whether we like it or not.
Of course, change is often good. Without it we don't get progress. Imagine our lives without, say, the polio vaccine, the Internet, Ben & Jerry's or Tivo. And the reason most teens have cell phones in the first place is patently obvious: They make parents' lives easier. Texting, even more so than a phone call, is a simple way to keep tabs on kids and sync schedules. It's also the means by which teens routinely ask one another about homework, firm up plans and keep in touch with far-flung buddies. Where teens are concerned, anything that greases the wheels of information exchange is difficult to argue against.