To better understand the impact of texting on adolescents, it is important to introduce the definitions, theories, and research relevant to better understanding the relationship between adolescents and text messaging. Excessive texting and social networking among adolescents has motivated this researcher to investigate the effects of texting on emotional and social development. First, technological terms that relate to texting and instant messaging will be defined. Second, relevant definitions and normative theories of development shall be discussed along with face-to-face communication skills. Third, seven studies will be reviewed in order to create a foundation from which to view adolescents and the effects of texting on their lives and communication skills, along with the foundational knowledge of adolescence presented in the work of Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson. This review will also broadly examine implications for social work practice and include a statement of study for this specific piece of research.


The language and technology surrounding text messaging is specific and therefore requires further definition. Within theoretical research literature, text messaging is defined as the exchange of brief messages through technology use (Tilley, 2009). That encompasses texting, short message service (SMS), and use of the social networking service Twitter over a cellular telephone network, and messages that sent to both individuals and groups. Adolescents have embraced short messaging service, also known as (SMS a mobile phone- based text messaging system, instant messaging (IM), and computer-based text chat systems (Tilley, 2009). The term SMS is used interchangeably with texting, sending text messages, and text messaging (Fendelman, 2012).

Adolescents have in effect created their own language. Text messaging often makes use of textual shortcuts because users are restricted to 160 characters (hence the name “short messaging system”). Some cell phones have full keyboards for faster texting, while others require multiple taps of a number key to achieve a particular letter (Fendelman, 2012). Text messaging has developed its own language that is often referred to as text-speak or “textisms” (Durkin et al., 2010). Text language is distinctive; its foundations are rooted in the principles of the written language but contain features of the spoken language (Durkin et al., 2010).

Text messaging has brought convenience and quickness to our society. Text language could be seen as a book of shorthand. Users generally shorten words by dropping vowels or endings or by using single letters, numbers, symbols or combinations as a replacement for letters, syllables, or whole words (Durkin et al., 2010). For example, words are shortened (e.g., Wed rather than Wednesday), letters are removed (e.g., goin for going), acronyms are inserted (e.g., LOL for laughing out loud), and symbols are used to replace words (e.g., & instead of and). Sequences of characters, such as joining a colon, a dash, and a right parenthesis, are used to create “emoticons” that express emotion, and letters are capitalized to express strong emotions.

Table 1 shows some basic emoticons and their meanings. Table 2 gives some common abbreviations used in text messaging (Russell, 2002). These emoticons and abbreviations are used to enhance communication while texting.

Table 1

Emoticons that are Commonly Used While Texting Emoticon Definition

🙂 Smiling face
😉 Smile with a wink
🙁 Frown
:-# My lips are sealed
😀 Laughing
:-O Shocked
B-) Cool
:-@ Screaming
😛 Sticking tongue out
:/ Confused

Note. This table includes common emoticons used in text communication (Russell, 2002).

Table 2

Abbreviations that are Commonly Used While Texting

Shorthand Definition
AAMOF As a matter of fact
AFAIK As far as I know
BTDT Been there done that
BTW By the way
BRB Be right back
F2F Face-to-face
G2G (GTG) Got to go
IKR I know right
IDC I don’t care
IDK I don’t know
LMHO Laughing my head off
LOL Laugh out loud
ROTFL Rolling on the floor laughing

Note. This table includes common shorthand abbreviations and definitions used in text communication (Russell, 2002).

History of Instant Communication

The origins of instant messaging can be traced back to the 1970s, when early forms of

IM appeared in systems such as Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO), in which messages were carried over private networks (Instant Messaging

Research Articles, 2011). Another early form of instant messaging, IM Internet Relay Chat (IRC), created in 1988 by Jarkko Oikarinien, allowed many users to communicate with each other (Instant Messaging Research Articles, 2011). The advent of IRC allowed users to send and receive short text messages in real time while performing other tasks at the same time.

While this technology was initially intended for business purposes, it has found its way into mainstream use and was embraced by adolescents for the ease and privacy it affords users (Instant Messaging Research Articles, 2011).

Normal Adolescent Language Development

According to research done by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the

National Commission on Writing (2008), 700 youth ages 12 to 17, along with their parents, were polled, and 64% of teens admitted to using shortcuts and symbols regularly in school assignments. The study also revealed that although adolescents are rooted in text messaging,

adolescents overall do not feel that texting is a form of writing (Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith, & Macgill, 2008). The study also revealed that 50% of adolescents admit they sometimes use informal writing styles and punctuation instead of proper capitalization and punctuation in school assignments (Lenhart et al., 2008).

Adolescent development is a process that evolves through learning from experiences. Adolescents go through a significant developmental period from childhood to adulthood. Normal development affects all domains, including the physical, emotional, cognitive, and particularly environmental and social domains. The capability to use conceptual or abstract thinking improves during adolescence (Novak, 2002). Adolescents increase their ability to think about their own thoughts and regulate their thinking (Novak, 2002). Abstract thinking skills relate to time and space: for example, thinking about what someone else is thinking about and making decision about “what if” situations (Rice, 1990). During this time adolescents also demonstrate growth in linguistic competence, which is defined as the increased ability to use and understand the abstract meaning of words, concepts, and figurative language such as metaphors (Novak, 2002). The ability to adjust speaking styles according to audience needs and to control and reflect on the ideas that are conveyed also develops in adolescence (Novak, 2002). Adolescents are able to modify their communication to fit the listener’s viewpoint (Novak, 2002).

Text messaging may limit opportunities for social interaction for adolescents who are specifically language impaired. In one research study, Durkin, Conti-Ramsdent, and Walker (2010) compared text use and literacy abilities between 17-year-old typically developing (TD) adolescents and in specifically language impaired (SLI) adolescents (N = 47 TD; N = 47 SLI). To measure this they administered standardized assessments of cognitive language and literacy abilities. Participants were also asked to send a text message and reply to texts sent by an experimenter. The experimenter texts consisted of “it would be great if you would

reply” “What do you usually do on Sat?” This text was sent to avoid yes-or-no answers. The adolescents with SLI performed significantly lower than the TD adolescents not only on measure of language, but also on measures of literacy.

The research indicated an association between text language use and literacy abilities indicated by the choice to return the text message, the structural features of the text, and the use of text language. The research also suggests that for adolescents, text messaging is the main way of keeping in touch with friends. SLI adolescents are less likely to participate in social networks and connect with peers, therefore reducing the social opportunities that are so vital to adolescent development (Durkin et al., 2010). This study is relevant to the current research because it shows how specifically language impaired adolescents can feel intimidated by texting. This could hinder and interfere with the SLI adolescents’ ability to connect with peers through texting. Therefore communication opportunities with peers become limited, which could affect gaining self-confidence.

Research that was collectively reanalyzed in a study done by Grinter, Palen, and Eldridge (2006) revealed that adolescents are communicating with their peers mainly through SMS, a mode of communication that influences adolescents at a time in their lives when they are focused on forming identity. This study contributes to an understanding of adolescent electronic lives. Findings analyzed from the SMS literature state that although they are different types and styles of usage, both SMS and IM serve adolescent communicative needs (Grinter et al., 2009). Building knowledge about the use of instant messaging among adolescents, the study examined how their features shape social practice. Technology is being used at home in ways researchers are just starting to understand. Everyday family life, technological choices, and economics play a part in how technology fits into home life. The new challenges that SMS and IM add to domestic communication will influence the research of future studies, especially how the information itself is gathered and analyzed (Grinter et al., 2009).

Face-to-Face Communication

Nonverbal communication can be an important part of developing healthy attachments. Bowlby (1969) describes “facial expression, posture, and tone of voice” as the essential vehicles of attachment communications between the developing self and the primary caregiver. Scaer’s (2005) research regarding client-therapist relationships states that many characteristics of social interactions are nonverbal. These nonverbal interactions consist of slight variations of facial expression that set the tone for the content of the interaction. Body postures and movement patterns may also reflect emotions. Tone of voice patterns and speed of verbal communication and eye contact also contain elements of subconscious communication. These aspects of communication are not present in text messaging.

Facial Cues and Communication

Facial cues and personal relationships affect development throughout one’s lifetime. Facial cues are not present in text communication. According to theoretical research done at the University of California, the human face has a way of helping individuals see what is behind interactions (Blum, 1998). Individuals are programmed to read faces. The ability to recognize emotions and facial cues is inborn; a smile is recognizable and scientifically measured in the originator’s left frontal cortex (Blum, 1998). Siegel (1999), states that if the capacity of the mind to adjust remains into adulthood, then the emotional relationships we have throughout life may be seen as the medium in which further development can be fostered. Siegel’s theory emphasizes the importance of personal relationships throughout life. Attachment relationships and other forms of close, emotionally involving interpersonal connections may serve to allow synaptic connections to continue to be altered even into adulthood (Siegel, 1999). Research states that humans universally recognize six different expressions in the context of face-to-face communication that seem to be hardwired. They are anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, and happiness (Blum, 1998). Face-to-face communication can impact a person’s self-esteem, and engaging in face-to-face communication builds trust, lowers status barriers, and assists in personal relationship building (Keller, 2009).

One study, conducted by Besel and Yuille (2010), researched the relationship between types of empathy and emotion recognition. Accuracy and recognition of facial expressions in adolescents is the first step to considerate and appropriate responses when interacting with others. The research investigated individual differences in empathy and emotion recognition. The researchers recruited 135 participants (98 females and 37 males), of whom 93% were between the ages of 18 and 23. Respondents were presented with pictures of random faces and given personality questionnaires. The questionnaire asked respondents to choose emotions from a list to fit the face in the picture they were viewing. The hypothesis was supported in that social skills were the related factor and empathetic concern was not. Research indicated that difficulty in reading expressions was related to impaired basic social understanding (Besel & Yuille, 2010). While this study demonstrates the importance of face- to-face communication, it also establishes an understanding that face-to-face communication offers benefits that texting may not.

A corpus analysis done by Riordan and Kreuz (2010) states, nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, vocal intonation, and gestures, can give insight into personality. Cues are available that attempt to express emotion in computer-mediated communication, but it was unclear whether users of computer-mediated communication could adapt to this environment without emotional face-to-face cues. These cues include emoticons such as © or 🙂 and © or 🙁 , which can express happiness or sadness (see Table 1). According to Riordan and Kreuz (2010), there are many different emoticons used to express different emotions (Riordan & Kreuz, 2010) (see Table 1 of common emoticons).

First, findings suggested that the more cues that were contained in a message, the stronger the recipients interpreted the sender’s emotions. Second, findings suggested that the cues that correlate with online friendships allowed users to exchange social and emotional information. This could indicate that cues are influential in developing online relationships. Third, when computer-mediated users were shown text without emoticons, most users could not determine the senders’ intentions. However, when emoticons were present in the text, participants significantly changed their perceptions of the senders’ attitudes. This indicates that the cues may decrease vagueness in messages that do not show emotion (Riordan & Kreuz, 2010). Adolescents attempt to express emotions through the use of text messaging. Whether emoticons are able to directly replace the emotion present in face-to-face communication remains an unanswered question.

In another study including 280 high school students, Pierce (2009) stated that interactive technology enables users to avoid face-to-face communication. The research specifically examined the role of social anxiety in how teens communicate with others. General use questions were asked about various socially interactive technologies. Respondents were asked self-report questions using a Likert scale. Statistical analysis performed used various measures, including a t-test analysis, revealed a positive relationship between not feeling comfortable talking with others face-to-face and talking with others online. The study showed that users experienced positive feelings and lack of social anxiety while talking with others online via text messaging. Females revealed that they felt more comfortable than males using text messaging rather than talking face-to-face (Pierce, 2009). If a shy person feels more comfortable with using technology rather than face-to-face

communication, the interactive technology may become a way for the socially anxious person to avoid interacting (Pierce, 2009).

Pierce’s (2009) findings suggest that teens are using socially interactive technologies to communicate with others and that social anxiety is influencing this use or serving as a substitute for face-to-face communication (Pierce, 2009). Adolescents tended to prefer texting because it allows for more control over the social interaction (Pierce, 2009). Users had the capability and the time to think about what they want to say without the added context of the social situation (Pierce, 2009). Text messaging was a way for adolescents to feel connected with peers without the anxiety face-to-face communication can produce. On the other hand, the lower anxiety level text messaging encouraged adolescents to say or do things that may have been detrimental to their relationships and that they might not have said or done during face-to-face communication.

Technology-Based Communication

Three research studies that have explored the effect of technology-based communication on the adolescent experience and communication reveal that technology has had an effect on their lives. In one study, Ho and McLeod (2008) examined the social psychological influences on opinion expression in face-to-face and computer-mediated media suggests that computer-mediated communication may avoid some of the dysfunctional social psychological influences found in face-to-face interactions. Ho and McLeod (2008) posed the question of whether individuals who were asked to speak in a face-to-face setting were less likely to express their opinions than those asked to speak out in a computer-mediated communication setting. A total of 352 randomly assigned undergrads were given an online questionnaire. Statistical analysis determined that there was a strong support for the hypothesis indicating that respondents were more reluctant to express opinions face-to-face than while using computer-mediated communication (Ho & McLeod, 2008).

Obtaining reliable and accessible sexual health information can be intimidating to adolescents. Adolescents report they have found barriers to obtaining information about sexual health (Selkie, Benson, & Moreno, 2011). One study showed how technology was used to obtain sexual health education by removing the barriers to obtaining the information. Focus groups of adolescents between the ages of 14 and 19 were formed were asked for their views regarding social networking sites and text messaging for the purpose of getting sexual health information. Tape-recorded interviews were transcribed and evaluated to determine the results.

Twenty-nine adolescents participated in the study. Most of the participants in the study were females (65.5%). Three themes emerged from the data. First, adolescents preferred sexual health information that was accessible. Second, adolescents preferred online sources that were trustworthy. Third, adolescents discussed preferences for safe resources (Selkie et al., 2011). Adolescents identified the potential technology had to be able to provide sexual health education in an interactive format (Selkie et al., 2011). Adolescents also discussed a preference for getting answers in a way that involves personal communication; something that text messaging could readily offer (Selkie et al., 2011). The use of text messaging in order to receive reliable information about sexual health could be helpful to adolescents in need. Adolescents may not seek out answers to sensitive sexual questions from face-to-face sources that do not offer the privacy of text messaging.

Although many developmental theorists give reasons why texting is so prevalent among adolescents and explanations of how it impacts their social skills, it is also important to understand the internal processes that occur during adolescence and further explain the reasons texting is so prevalent and popular among this age group (Grinter et al., 2009; Ho & McLeod, 2008; Pierce, 2009).

Conceptual Framework

This section explains the mission of adolescence and Erik Erikson’s developmental theory of the stages of psychosocial development, and then discussed the theory in relation to the effects of texting on adolescent communication skills. The researcher’s personal experience with texting and adolescents, and her professional experience working with adolescents in a high school setting were discussed. The examination of these three areas provides a deeper understanding of the developmental stages of adolescent individuals and how texting could impact their development during this stage.

Developmental perspectives were used to describe Freud and Erikson’s theories. According to Hutchison (2008), developmental perspectives are how human behavior unfolds across the life course. Human development occurs in clearly defined stages and is seen as a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social progression (Hutchison, 2008). Biological Changes during Adolescence

The hormonal changes that come with the onset of puberty, paired with the internal stress of rapid physical growth as well as sexual maturation and curiosity, can make adolescence an especially challenging and volatile time for many youth (Osit, 2008). The start of puberty is the generally thought to be the start of the adolescent stage. The exact age at which adolescence begins varies slightly among girls and boys. Puberty traditionally begins between the ages of eleven and thirteen (Berger, 2001). It is during this stage that the adolescent begins to explore their possibilities and define their own sense of identity. Developmental tasks of the adolescent involve identifying, evaluating, and selecting various roles for their adult life. In order to achieve a unique identity, a sense of both uniqueness and sameness are required (Hamman & Hendrick, 2005). For example, adolescents may explore their independence through texts to friends while staying connected to more familiar ways of being through texts to parents for advice. Adolescents can also explore their independence by not being in close proximity to their parents or guardians but still keeping in regular contact with them through texting.

Psychosocial Theory of Development

Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development theory Eight Stages of Man (Erikson,

1968), provides a lens through which to view adolescent development tasks and challenges. Erikson’s theory, particularly the first five stages from birth through adolescence, could be seen as a continuation of Sigmund Freud’s five stages of psychosocial development, which also cover development from birth through adolescence (Parrish, 2009). Freud’s stages of psychosocial development were compared with the development of certain parts of the body that focus on pleasure or stimulation. Freud focused on the conflicts that result from unresolved issues related to each stage in childhood. He believed that if a child experienced a struggle in resolving the mission associated with each stage, this would result in fixation or being focused on that stage or corresponding part of the body, which would then result in an unhealthy development of the person. Freud also believed that these stages were completed by adolescence (Parrish, 2009). Erikson’s and Freud’s theories focus on sexual development. Erikson built on Freud’s theories and focused more on psychosocial development across the entire lifespan (Parrish, 2009). Both theorized that the individual resolved, achieved, and worked through the stages with the aim of completing the task of a particular stage in order to go on to the next. This would suggest that individuals stay in a particular stage until they reach the resolution they need to be able to move forward (Erikson, 1959). Today the idea of stages of development is good in theory. It is widely acknowledged that adolescents may be working on a goal that pertains to more than one stage at a time. Stage theory is less clear and linear than previously assumed.

Erikson’s Adolescent Development and Identity

Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development are based on the idea that people’s personalities continue to develop over the course of their lives based on their successes in negotiating eight life stages (Hutchinson, 2008). A brief description of Erikson’s stages will provide helpful context about the stages and how they affect the adolescent. According to Erikson, healthy development depends on the mastery of life tasks at the right time in the sequence (Hutchinson, 2008). Erikson’s stage theory combines societal influence on development as well as biological factors. In each stage there is potential for personal growth or failure.

Erikson divided the life cycle into eight stages, each with a specific psychosocial crisis. Stage one includes (birth to one year) includes basic trust vs. mistrust, and during this stage the individual learns to trust others by getting their basic needs met therefore they will learn to trust others. Stage two includes (ages two to three) includes autonomy vs. shame, and during this stage the individual completes the developmental task of controlling and directing one’s own behavior. During this stage the individual will either become independent or, if the stage is not completed, learn self-doubt and shame. Stage three (ages three to five) includes initiative vs. guilt, and during this stage the individual completes the task of controlling one’s own behavior and acting appropriately in situations. If the task is completed, the individual develops initiative; if this task is not completed, the individual will feel irresponsible, anxious, or guilty. Stage four (ages six to 12) includes industry vs. inferiority, and in this stage children begin to develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments in learning new tasks and skills. If this stage is not completed, the individual will feel incompetent.

During adolescence independence is explored in order to develop an identity. According to Erikson Stage five is when this occurs. Stage five (ages 12 to approximately 18) includes identity vs. role confusion, in which the adolescent is figuring out who they are and what they want out of life and their own identity. If this task is not completed, they may become confused or withdrawn. This developmental stage is when texting is prevalent.

Stage six (early to late 20s), includes intimacy vs. isolation; in this early adulthood stage, the developmental task is being able to share one’s own identity with another in a committed relationship. If this task is not completed, isolation occurs. Stage seven (late 20s to 50s includes generativity vs. stagnation; this stage involves being able to be produce something that makes a difference to society. If this task is completed, the individual will be able to feel productive and that their life is meaningful. If the stage is not completed, inactivity and a sense of meaningless of existence can occur. Stage eight (late adulthood) involves integrity vs. despair. Upon completion, this stage consists of a sense of having had a meaningful life. If the task is not completed, the individual may fear death and struggle with wondering if their life had meaning (Hutchinson, 2008).

Erikson’s concept of the state of identity vs. role confusion, or stage five in the developmental process, will be discussed and summarized in relation to the proposed study. Erikson’s research states that the search for identity is a basic human need (Berger, 2001).

The process of developing an adolescent identity helps with the formation and development of an adult identity later in life. Normal adolescent development affects the physical, cognitive, and social areas of the individual (Novak, 2002). All of the developmental areas are involved in the transitional time of adolescence (Novak, 2002). Therefore, the internal developmental process that adolescents experience includes the adolescent’s need to feel connected and the urgent sense of belonging with peers (Berger, 2001).

Independence or separation from the experiences of childhood is needed in order to form a new identity separate from one’s parents or caregivers (Berger, 2001). This independence from parents and caregivers makes way for the development of more meaningful relationships with peers. Separation in childhood, for example, is when children first discover that they are unique and separate people from caregivers and other siblings. In adolescence, however, separation is a time in which adolescents distinguish themselves and build on the functions of childhood. During separation, adolescents begin to understand that they are no longer the same people they were during childhood: they begin to look different, sound different, and interact with their world in a different way. During adolescence, youth learn to be more responsible for themselves and no longer rely on caregivers for tasks like personal hygiene, eating, sleeping, or reminders to do schoolwork. While the tasks of separation occur progressively and throughout the course of adolescence, adolescents are becoming more autonomous, developing identity, finding intimacy and exploring sexuality (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008). Texting is a way for adolescents to develop their own identities by connecting with peers. They have some control over what kind of identity they want to have within their peer group.

Normative psychosocial development helps the adolescent eventually attain adult status and maturity (Berger, 2001). Internal schema, which is an internal self-portrait, is also developed during the adolescent years (Osit, 2008). Erikson states in his developmental theory that adolescents are trying to understand how they relate to the world (Hamman & Hendricks, 2005). According to Erikson, if this process is hindered, the adolescent becomes confused about who they are and what their role is (Hutchinson, 2008). Adolescents have an increased need for peer relationships (Hutchinson, 2008). This increased need for peer relationships may be one reason texting is so popular among adolescents. Adolescents are motivated by a need to feel a sense of belonging and sameness (Pierce, 2009).

Erikson (1968) has noted that adolescents search for belonging and sense of self in their peer group and look to their peers to navigate their developing identity. Research states that texting continues to be the dominant mode of communication among adolescents, and therefore there is a need to understand how this is affecting adolescents’ sense of belonging

and identity and their ability to effectively communicate with their peers and others in their lives.

Personal and Professional Lens

The current study originated from this researcher’s personal interest in adolescent texting and communication skills. As a developing clinical social worker who will inevitably work with adolescents and young adults, and as a mother of four children who is and will be affected by the prevalence of texting, this researcher believes that research on this topic is extremely relevant and important. This researcher has recently completed a clinical placement at a high school, and texting was prevalent among the students there.

Today’s youth need to be able to connect with others in a meaningful and valuable way. If social workers are aware of and understand the ways in which youth are able to do this, and of how texting affects them and their ability to form relationships that will affect them into adulthood they can make a positive impact in their lives. As the use of social networks among teens increases, and as research continues to demonstrate that teens are using social networks to maintain existing friendships from their off-line life, there is a need to understand how texting can influence teens’ safety and security as well as the communication skills they are developing—or not developing—because of these technologies.