As communication through technology-based mediums such as web-based communication and cell phones increases, it is essential to ensure that adolescents ages thirteen to eighteen possess the face-to-face social skills necessary to get by in the world (Tilley, 2009). Cell phones have become a vital social tool and text messaging has evolved into the preferred mode of communication among adolescents (Tilley, 2009). Despite shifts in how communication occurs, it is important for this age group to be able to communicate face- to-face during job interviews, class seminars, and other routine activities that might include ordering from a restaurant menu and other necessary basic communication interactions (Edgington, 2011). Although it is not clear to what degree the communication skills of today’s adolescents differ from those of previous generations, face-to-face communication and traditional telephone usage does help people practice their social skills. Prior to the widespread use of cell phones, adolescents experienced firsthand reactions primarily while meeting and talking to people on the phone or in person. They were able to learn from their mistakes and successes while practicing the skills needed for successful face-to-face communication. Many adolescents mistake communication through technology as the same as actual face-to-face communication (Tilley, 2009). This correlation may contribute to, and affect, their ability to communicate face-to-face with one another.
While the long-term impact of technology on the quality of adolescent communication is unknown, it is evident technology has become increasingly present in the lives of adolescents (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008). Today’s generation of adolescents uses communication technologies more than any other generation (Junco & Cotton, 2010). Texting is also known as short messaging services (SMS) and instant messaging, has become
adolescents’ dominant mode of communication, exceeding phone calls and face-to-face interaction (PEW Internet and American Life Project, 2012). Reportedly between 66% and 80% of adolescents have cell phones (Durkin, Conti-Ramsdent, & Walker, 2010). Roughly 80% of cell phones have Internet access (Lenhart, 2011). Approximately 63% of adolescents report text messaging an average of 60 times per day (PEW Internet and American Life Project, 2012). Adolescents dedicate approximately 90 minutes daily to text message communication (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008). Availability of and access to cell phones and social networking have allowed for the replacement of traditional verbal and face-to-face communication methods.
There are many benefits to texting as a means of communication between friends and family. First, texting has become a way to maintain friendships among adolescents and contributes to their sense of well-being. Second, texting allows users ample time to read, write, and edit messages while affording more informal, relaxed, and private forms of communication (Durkin et al., 2010; Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008). Third, texting allows adolescents to stay connected with their parents or guardians at all times. Therefore, texting and instant messaging can be a way for parents to keep track of their adolescents (Osit, 2008; Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008).
Texting has become a medium for teaching and investigating topics or ideas within the classroom environment (Reich, 2008). As a result of constant connection and interaction with technology, today’s students think and process information differently than previous generations (Prensky, 2001). To increase overall participation in class, teachers are encouraging the use of texting in the classroom as a teaching tool. Students can text rather than raising a hand and waiting to be recognized. This use of texting could have the potential to increase class participation (Reich, 2008). All the students in the classroom can participate by sending a text, while only a few can be called upon at one time.
Texting in school settings may also support a student’s individual transition to university life by maintaining relationships that relate to their everyday life (Harley, Pemberton, Wilcox, & Winn, 2007). School-to-student text communication provides students access to networks of social support and facilitates learning among academic systems at new institutions (Harley et al., 2007). Students can receive text messages giving them information about upcoming events at their school such as games, meetings, and emergency notifications.
Although there are many ways to engage adolescents through texting, many parents and school officials find ways to monitor content, limit usage, and protect adolescents from the possible dangers of texting (Ludden, 2010). The impacts of texting among adolescents can lead to problematic outcomes such as poor school performance, interruption in sleep habits, bullying through text messaging, texting while driving, sexting, and other negative effects on communication skills (Dawson, 2005; Hafner, 2009; Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008). While new methods of technology make communication more immediately available, the extent to which this paradigm shift can add or detract from the overall quality of adolescents communication skills is unclear. According to Edgington (2011), adolescents may have a difficult time being present in the moment because of the constant stream of text messages. It may be difficult to gain adolescents’ full attention when they are constantly looking down at their cell phones to read messages. It therefore becomes less likely that adolescents will be completely present in their face-to-face conversations, homework, or family activities while texting or receiving text messages.
Texting impacts adolescents’ relationships with family and friends by interrupting family time or helping families stay connected. The research on how family relations are affected by texting is so far inconclusive. However, adolescents’ excessive texting with peers may harm relationships with their parents and siblings. According to Subrahmanyam and Greenfield (2008), electronic multitasking “has become pervasive, sometimes to the expense
of face-to-face family interaction, among siblings as well as parents” (p. 135). Adolescents are known to use cell phones to screen calls from parents and to interrupt family mealtime, vacations, and rituals (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008).
Over the past ten years, technology has become increasingly present in the lives of adolescents. This may be largely due to increased accessibility and prevalence of technology in everyday life (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008). Because the positive and negative effects of text messaging are not well understood, further examination of the short term and long term effects are indicated. Some specific areas for more study include the short-term effect of texting and how the instant gratification texting produces in adolescents, fuels the need to keep texting (Charman-Anderson, 2009). Another area for further research would be how texting can affect the safety and health of adolescents (Poncelet, 2009).
Some relevant statistics are helpful to further support the evidence of the availability and accessibility of texting. The increasing availability and presence of cell phones has made driving while texting a significant issue of adolescent safety. Texting while driving can be dangerous and even deadly. Road safety and motor insurance surveys have indicated that a large number of people, especially teens, admitted to getting distracted when driving while texting (Wisconsin Department of Transportation, 2012). Almost half of the subjects between the ages of 12 and 17 admitted to traveling in a car when the driver was texting. In 2007 alone, thousands of car crashes in the United States occurred as a result of texting while driving (Naik, 2010). Laws regarding texting and driving are just being developed and implemented. For example, in Wisconsin it is legal for adults to use cell phones but illegal to text. Wisconsin laws affecting novice drivers, usually adolescents, ban all cell phone use for these drivers as of November 1, 2012. The law primarily impacts teen drivers with learner’s permits (Wisconsin Department of Transportation, 2012).
A review of the literature suggests that texting has had a definite impact on the adolescent experience. Its specific effect on communication skills has been difficult to understand entirely. The body of literature examining evidence-based knowledge of the effects of texting on adolescent communication skills is limited, a fact that further emphasizes the need for more research in this area. While much prior research has focused on other forms of social media used by adolescents, such as Facebook, MySpace, and other Internet services, little research has been done exclusively on the effects of texting on adolescent communication.
Sexting is another dynamic impacting adolescents’ today. Sexting, or the sending of sexually explicit messages via cell phone or instant messaging (Poncelet, 2009), is a relatively new way for adolescents to communicate and is facilitated by technology via photos, video, and recordings. Although sexting is relatively new this practice concerns parents due to the potential for explicit pictures to wind up in the wrong hands or sent to a larger audience than initially intended. The practice of sending suggestive and explicit pictures has increased especially among teens and could be considered risky behavior. One example comes from recent research where a group of adolescent girls was surveyed and 51% stated that they felt pressure from boys to send explicit messages (Matte, 2012).
Texting is an activity available to adolescents 24 hours a day, and it can therefore interrupt an adolescent’s daily life. This constant availability can result in inadequate amounts of sleep and can affect both school performance and relationships. Adolescents typically need nine hours of sleep a night to perform adequately in school (Dawson, 2005). Many adolescents will stay up late texting friends without their parent’s knowledge. Wolfson and Carskadon’s (2003) research indicates that there is a strong correlation between shortened and interrupted sleep time and poor academic performance, and that it can be detrimental in many ways, such as endangering other drivers.
School social workers have witnessed both the positive and negative effects of texting on adolescents. They are uniquely positioned to help adolescents understand the effects texting has on their lives. Social workers are then able to help adolescents safely navigate their environments and to teach the communication skills necessary to be able to successfully interface with others. Teaching adolescents the importance of face-to-face communication may be beneficial to the healthy development of identity and lifelong communication skills. In the field of social work, communication is seen as an integral part of the human experience. Social work professionals attempt to improve the lives of adolescents by helping them to develop healthy and effective ways of communicating their needs, desires, and dreams. It is vital that social workers are at the forefront of teaching these new communication skills.
School social workers need to be aware of the effects of texting on adolescents in their communities. They need to understand both the positive and negative influence of texting on this group. School social workers must understand how texting affects adolescents in order to provide guidance. School social workers’ understanding of how texting affects adolescents will shape their ability to guide students in this new frontier.