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Generation Text: Teens and Texting

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System Overload?
Teens and texting
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Jude Buffum

Clearly, texting has upsides. But what's weighing on parents' minds is whether there's a point at which there's too much messaging going on. The way that texting allows kids to stay connected to their friends every waking moment of the day (and many of the non-waking ones) is unprecedented. As a teen, you might have spent two hours on the phone every night with your best friend, and that probably felt like a lot to your mom and dad. Today many, if not most, teens are engaged in an ongoing conversation with their pals that lasts from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep again, only to pick right up again the following morning. This cycle has resulted in a new set of norms and assumptions, primary among them that any text should generate an immediate response, according to Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the Pew Research Center (pewresearch.org). "There's a perception that teens are always available, and therefore if you don't respond quickly, you're angry," she says. This can lead to misunderstandings if a friend texts a kid who can't conveniently respond, like if he's sleeping. Or driving.

Lucy, a 17-year-old in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sends on average 300 texts daily. When her parents examined her bill, they realized that many were being sent after they thought she was asleep. Addressing the problem turned out to be as simple as a call to their carrier to disable texting during sleeping hours, but the fact that they needed to do so illustrates the irresistible lure. Talking on the phone all night would be exhausting, and probably a little boring. Texting, however, is low-impact and all sizzle. Any given message feels like it takes zero time to send, and the rhythm of waiting for a response creates a miniature positive reinforcement loop. Even when conversations peter out, they can be revived hours later on a whim. The combination of these effects results in immense conversational stamina. And it's hard not to see how this constant, if slight, distraction can fragment a child's consciousness.

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