April 13, 2009
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
Students aren't allowed to use cell phones during school hours at my oldest children's high school. So Zack, my 16-year-old son, has learned how to type text messages while his phone is in his pants pocket. He can do it entirely without looking!
I have two confessions to make. First, I'm a little impressed by this. Second, when he texts me during school hours, I usually answer, even though by doing so I'm encouraging his rule-breaking.
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Cell phones and text messaging have become an integral part of life for teenagers. As any parent of a teen can attest, teens use their cell phones for text messaging more than for making calls. They are constantly texting, throughout the day and night.
According to a recent survey by CTIA (a trade association for wireless telecommunications) and Harris Interactive:
- Nearly 80% of teenagers own cell phones, up 36% from 2005.
- The average age for getting a first cell phone is between 10 and 11; about 50% of kids 8 to 12 years old have one.
- Teens with cell phones average 2,272 texts per month (that works out to 75 per day), and only 203 calls.
- More than 40% say they can text blindfolded, so I probably shouldn't be so impressed by Zack.
This is not all bad. But I have concerns about the unintended consequences of texting, and some suggestions for parents of texting teens.
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The Advantages of Texting
- Helps teens feel connected to their peers, which is crucial for that age group
- Teaches teens to be comfortable with technology in a way that will be important for their futures
- Encourages multitasking
- Helps kids become more comfortable with using the written word
- Is a very convenient way for families to communicate: My teenagers text me when they need rides, to let me know where they are, and to tell me they don't feel well or left their homework on the printer.
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However, there are reasons for concern. For example, text messages can:
- Interfere with normal conversation and interactions
- Interfere with sleep; a 2003 Belgian study showed that teens are often woken at night by text messages
- Be extraordinarily dangerous if sent and received while driving, which is becoming more common
- Be used for bullying and harassment
- Be easily forwarded, resulting in personal or embarrassing messages and photos being shared
- Lead to poorer quality work when kids text during homework; there's a fine line between multi-tasking and distraction
- Hardly be considered high-quality writing; texts are brief and full of abbreviations
There is a disturbing trend of "sexting." Teens take naked or sexually suggestive pictures and send them to their friends. These, too, can be easily and widely distributed. Because this is technically creating and distributing pornography, "sexting" can lead to felony charges!
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Parents need to be involved when it comes to teens and text messaging. I bet that many parents are unaware of how many text messages their children are sending, what kind, and when. Parents may not realize the problems that can occur because most of them don't use the technology.
Here are some suggestions for parents of texting teens:
- Talk to them. When investigators talk to teens about the naked photos they take and send, and ask them why they did it, they often get responses equivalent to "it seemed like a good idea at the time." Talk to your kids about the issues and concerns related to text messaging. Understand that it's an important part of their lives. Listen to what they have to say. But help them see the big picture, and how excessive or inappropriate text messaging can cause real trouble.
- Set limits. It is okay to limit your child's texting. For example, pick a time past which they aren't allowed to send messages. I use 10 p.m. on school nights and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. I also don't allow it while driving, during family meals, at religious services, when they are a guest at someone's house, or while in the midst of a direct conversation. If a child is having academic difficulties, it may be necessary to take his cell phone away while he does his homework. If your child seems to be constantly texting, set text-free times of day with their input, since being willing to compromise and be flexible can be key.
- Do spot checks. Let's face it, teens aren't always truthful. (Were you 100% truthful with your parents when you were a teen?) So periodically check when they are texting. Look at your bill or view a more detailed version of the statement online, if it's available. Reserve the right to randomly take the cell phone and check the messages for anything inappropriate even if you only do it rarely. You are letting your child know that you mean business. You will get pushback on this, but it's important to be aware of what's going on in your child's life.
As I've read more about teens and text messaging, I may need to set a few more limits. For instance, I'm not going to answer Zack's messages from school anymore. It's easy and convenient to do so, and in my busy life easy and convenient are, well, seductive. But I need to set an example by not giving in to that seduction, and by letting my kids know that there are limits to texting. If he's sick, he can call me from the nurse's office. And if the homework is on the printer, well, next time he'll have to remember to take it off.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.