Little 160-character messages now play a huge role in how teenagers interact with one another, and it happened practically overnight. R U up on the latest in telecommunications?

By Scott Alexander

For kids, part of the process of becoming a teenager means identifying less with family, more with friends (of both the same and the opposite sex). This breaks parents' hearts a little—because it means they talk mostly to one another and very rarely to us. This is not exactly news. It's been going on for millennia, and every society has coped differently.

However, to paraphrase an ancient Chinese curse, today's moms and dads are doomed to live in interesting times. The past few decades have brought about major technological leaps in terms of telecommunications. Teens in the 1950s and 1960s were gifted with the meteoric rise of the telephone, an innovation that changed adolescent relationships forever, even if they had to chat in the hall within earshot of everyone. The 1970s brought phones in their bedrooms, altering the dynamic again. Fast-forward to the 1980s, when teens were spending so much time talking, exasperated parents had second lines installed. E-mail ushered in the 1990s, followed by instant messaging. The walk-up to Y2K brought cell phones. And today's teenagers, luxuriating in their own personal slice of telecom history, have texting.

By the Numbers

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.

System Overload?

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 ( "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.

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.

Where the Boys Are

When it comes to texting, the battle of the sexes is alive and well.

Teens text in strikingly divergent ways. Girls send significantly more daily messages than boys, 80 versus 30, according to Pew Research—and are nearly 20% more likely to send a text just to say hello or chat. In terms of subject matter, both boys and girls rely on texting for functional purposes, like making plans or checking on homework. Beyond that, girls anecdotally report avidly back-and-forthing about their social relationships ("Are you serious? I had no idea she was mad at me!"), while for boys, external, third-party topics, such as sporting events ("omg total blown call, should be Chargers ball") tend to dominate. The differences even extend to punctuation. Scott Campbell, assistant professor of new media at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, claims he's seen significant stylistic differences in form, with boys tending not to use punctuation, whereas girls have evolved an extremely subtle emotional grammar. For instance, according to Campbell, if a girl puts a period at the end of a text message, then it comes across as if she's mad. Rest assured that the dot at the end of this sentence conveys no anger whatsoever.

How did texting suddenly become so popular? Ask the people who price the plans.

The cost structure of limited versus unlimited messaging plans is a big part of why texting is now a way of life for teenagers, says Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Research Center. A kid with a finite num-ber of messages for any given month—say, 100—will definitely think twice before hitting Send. But once someone moves to an unlimited plan, he stops being so selective and frequently fires off trivial notes like "OK" or "Fine." However, because U.S. cellphone carriers bill per message sent or received, one teen getting an unlimited plan—thus entering into that anything-goes mind-set—can have a ripple effect on her friends, because her no-longer-rationed messages end up nudging her pals on limited plans over their monthly allotments, resulting in their parents receiving big bills. In late 2007 the major carriers started pricing unlimited messages at just a few bucks more per month than limited plans—and given the math, many parents switched their kids to unlimited texting. According to Lenhart, "One person in a social circle getting an unlimited plan more or less forces the other people he wants to communicate with regularly to get an unlimited plan."

A Brief History Of Text Messaging

A VERY LONG TIME AGO The first organized mail systems are established in Persia and Egypt.

ALSO A VERY LONG TIME AGO The Sumerians invent school. Shortly thereafter, presumably, Sumerian teenagers invent note-passing.

2000 BC through 400 AD Various courier systems are developed for message delivery in the world's major cities.

476 AD Rome falls, along with its high literacy rate. For the next several hundred years, most of the people who know how to read and write are monks. Nothing too sexy happens, text-communications-wise, for several hundred years.

1200 AD As his empire expands, Mongol emperor Genghis Khan uses homing pigeons to carry written orders miles away.

1290 The German Thurn and Taxis family begins a private courier service. During the next few hundred years it grows into an extensive mail system in western Europe, eventually nationalized by Prussia in 1867.

1440 Johannes Gutenberginvents the printing press, enabling mass production of books. Literacy rates soar.

1794 Claude Chappe creates the non-electric telegraph to communicate visually over long distances. It was replaced soon after, in 1809, by the electric telegraph, the brainchild of Samuel Soemmering and the precursor to the telephone.

1876 Though numerous inventors had been working diligently on the problem of "voice over wire" for many years—building on one another's discoveries—Alexander Graham Bell is awarded the patent for the telephone.

1949 Al Gross patents the telephone pager, primarily used in hospitals and emergency situations.

1965 E-mail is invented at MIT to pass messages from one computer user to another.

1969 In conjunction with MIT, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) creates ARPANet, the first packet-switching network, and the precursor to the Internet.

1972 The @ symbol debuts as a way to designate a particular user on a particular machine.

1973 The first call is made on a mobile phone by its inventor, Martin Cooper, an engineer at Motorola.

1974 Motorola offers the first consumer pager for sale.

1983 The Unix "talk" protocol is updated to allow users on different computers to "chat" (type) to each other in real time (this had previously been limited to multiple users on a single mainframe).

1990 Cell phone text messaging is invented by Nokia employee Matti Makkonen, utilizing a previously unused segment of "junk" data passed between cell phones and cell towers. 12.4 million people worldwide have cell phones, 22 million people carry pagers.

1992 Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web, a way of turning any word in a document into a link to another document. It is text-only for its first two years but eventually leads to an explosion in popular use of the Internet.

1994 Pager use balloons to 61 million, but will soon be eclipsed by cell phones and text messaging.

2002 26 students at Hitotsubashi University in Japan are failed for receiving exam answers via their mobile phones.

2006 Twitter, a publishing medium tailored to the typical length of text messages, debuts

2007-2008 Most U.S. cell phone companies begin offering unlimited texting plans.

2009 Ashton Kutcher becomes the first Twitter user to get 1 million followers, narrowly beating CNN. Reading significance into this will only make you sad.

Originally published in the October 17, 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.