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Generation Text: Teens and Texting

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Arrested Development

Beyond the distraction factor is reasonable concern that this shallower form of communication—after all, there's only so much substance you can pack into 160 characters—is stunting teens' emotional growth. Which is why Sherry Turkle, director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at MIT, who has been studying the effects of technology on identity for decades, is troubled. "Today's teens would rather text one another than talk," she says. The stock explanation is that messaging is more convenient, but digging deeper brings to light that they find using their own voices too revealing, according to Turkle. And the lack of actual conversations, with their typical nuances and give-and-take, prevents teens from learning how to "read" people and respond empathically. More important, with a phone in their pocket all the time, kids are never really alone. The net result of constant connectivity is that many have a hard time making simple decisions or weathering minor setbacks without conferring with others, which over time can erode confidence in one's own coping skills.

But while texting's social and psychological effects are hard to gauge precisely, its ramifications in schools are clear. Teachers roundly complain that they feel texting—whether the act of sending one or the anticipation of receiving one—distracts students. Today almost all schools expressly prohibit cell phones in the classroom, but teens are so adept at typing on the sly, the rule is more or less moot. Given that a 2008 Harris Interactive study found that nearly half of kids—42%—could text while blindfolded, it's not surprising that Pew's research also revealed that 64% of kids had sent a text during class. While students are sometimes asked to put their cells in a basket when they enter a classroom, many carry a fake phone for handing in and keep their real one hidden.

The simplest solution would be to block or jam cell phone signals inside school buildings during classroom hours. However, parents—now accustomed to being able to reach their child at all times—typically balk at this, having apparently forgotten that kids went to school without mobile phones as recently as five years ago. Complicating matters is that Congress specifically outlawed any attempt to block wireless communications in 2005. The law didn't stop administrators at Mt. Spokane High School in Spokane, Washington, who installed jammers as a last resort, only to disable the devices three days later for legal reasons.

Despite the many concerns, at the end of the day texting is just a technology. The problem isn't so much the thing itself as how it's being used. Our society has yet to figure out the collective implications of living in 160-character bursts. The people who create a new technology (usually adults) are almost never the group that realizes its full potential (usually kids). And that potential invariably carries positive, though harder to see, consequences along with the more immediately obvious negative ones. It would not be surprising if texting throws off some interesting benefits for those who grow up with it as part of their social system. Texting removes friction from human communications, exactly as the telephone did 50 years back and the Internet did 10 years ago. Both developments transformed society. Who's to say that the kids of tomorrow won't be part of some kind of hive mind that brokers peace in the Middle East or cures cancer? We may look back in 20 years and see that texting was the first step toward something overarchingly connective and beautiful. Or we may view it retrospectively as the beginning of our evolution into an army of zombies with eyes glued to our phones. Knowing humans, it'll probably be a little of both.

In any case, at this point arguing against texting is like arguing against the ocean or the color orange. They're already there, and too many people are attached to them. Firing off messages at will has become deeply and firmly entrenched in youth culture, albeit in a disconcertingly fast fashion. Wishing it away is naive. Although if history is any guide, it probably will go away one day. Right around the time we get comfortable with it, which will coincide with something new coming along. Here's to interesting times.