The purpose of this qualitative study was to better understand what effect texting has on adolescent communication skills. This qualitative research design, which involved participants describing their world in their own words (Berg, 2009), was chosen because the research was focused on communication skills and trying to understand the affects texting had on adolescent communication skills as seen through the eyes of school social workers. Seven semi-structured interviews were conducted. Eight predetermined, open-ended questions were asked in order to allow space for the researcher to ask follow-up questions (Berg, 2009). Use of a qualitative method of research allowed school social workers sharing their perspectives, experiences, and voices, and contributed to making the research process more collaborative.
Protection of Human Subjects
Prior to any contact with participants or data collection, the research proposal was reviewed by a number of individuals to ensure the protection of the participants. This proposal was reviewed by committee members. The committee reviewed and approved the goals, design, and methodology of the research.
At the time of the interview, this researcher verbally went over the consent form and discussed the sensitivities of the subject (see Appendix A). This researcher informed participants that they may stop their participation in the research at any point during the interview and up to one week after the scheduled interview time by contacting the researcher by e-mail or phone. The participants were also informed that they could skip any questions within the interview schedule and that participation in this research was completely voluntary (see Appendix C). In addition to the discussion of confidentiality within the consent form, this researcher described the steps that would be taken to ensure that participants’ data remain confidential. At the end of interview process, this researcher provided participants with a list of mental health and texting-related resources that were available for psychoeducation and therapeutic support following participation in the study, (see Appendix D). This list was provided in the case that participation in this study caused emotional distress for participants by answering questions related to how adolescents’ communications skills are affected by texting. To ensure the protection of participants, this research was reviewed and approved by the research committee and University of St. Thomas Institutional Review Board (IRB) prior to any contact or outreach to potential participants. An expedited level of review was required for this study, meaning that two IRB members in addition to the IRB chair examined this study.
The method of data collection for this study was semi-structured interviews, which lasted between 20 and 60 minutes. The interview consisted of eight open-ended interview questions (see Appendix C) that were reviewed by the research committee and University of St. Thomas Institutional Review Board (IRB). The interview questions were developed by this researcher for the purpose of this particular study and were based on qualitative interview questions and studies from previous adolescent and instant messaging literature (PEW Internet and American Life Project, 2012).
To ensure the protection of human subjects, the researcher interviewed participants in a private location of their choosing in order to make participants more comfortable.
Interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed on the researcher’s computer into a password-protected folder. In order to protect participants’ information, no identifying names were audio-recorded.
After the interviews were conducted, this researcher personally transcribed each interview using a handheld recording device. This allowed the researcher to listen to the audio recording of the interview while typing the context of the interview on the personal computer. The researcher then went through the transcript manually to ensure accuracy. The researcher numbered the interviews and referred to them by number during data analysis to ensure confidentiality of the participants. The recordings will be kept in a locked cabinet at the researcher’s home until June 1, 2013, at which time the audio recordings will be destroyed.
The researcher used content analysis with an interpretative approach in order to examine the transcribed text gathered from the interviews. Content analysis, a systematic examination of a body of material in order to identify patterns, themes, biases, and meaning (Berg, 2009), allowed the themes and meaning to come from within the transcribed text and then be compared to the current literature. The interpretative approach also suggests that the data will be interpreted through the theoretical framework that is driven by both the researcher and state of the literature (Berg, 2009). Data reduction analysis was used to move from the specific accounts within the transcribed data to a more general interpretative organization of themes and meaning. This researcher used the examination process of context analysis and the language terminology form to identify meaning from the data. Themes and subthemes rose from the questions asked during the interviews. The themes were present in all the interviews, while the subthemes varied among participants. The findings section will explore the data, and the discussion will compare it to the current literature.
The researcher recruited participants through purposive sampling, which is a nonprobability sampling technique in which researchers use their judgment and prior knowledge to choose people for the sample who best serve the purposes of the study (Monette, Sullivan, & DeJong, 2011). A list of Wisconsin and Minnesota school social workers was obtained through the Wisconsin School Social Worker Association and the Minnesota School Social Worker Association. Possible participants were contacted for recommendations and as possible research participants though an initial e-mail. After the first interview, the researcher was able to use snowball sampling and convenience sampling to recruit participants. Snowball sampling is a nonprobability sampling strategy in which participants are asked to identify other potential participants at the conclusion of their interview (Berg, 2009). Convenience sampling relies on available subjects who are close at hand or easily accessible. At the initial contact, this researcher sent out an e-mail or made a phone call to potential participants providing them with information about the study. The information included the Letter of Recruitment and Introduction (Appendix B), Letter of Informed Consent (Appendix A), and the Interview Questions (Appendix C). Upon reviewing the information and agreeing to the informed consent, the researcher and participant set up a time with the researcher for the interview to be conducted.
The researcher interviewed seven Wisconsin school social workers. The current sample included seven female Wisconsin social workers (n = 7); participants worked in suburban and rural school settings in grades five through 12. Five of the school social workers were in suburban school settings and two in rural settings. The school social worker participants had experience that ranged from five to 18 years.
The current research aimed to gain an understanding of the effect text messaging had on adolescent communication within their lives, with people they engaged with, as perceived by school Wisconsin social workers. In this findings section, the five findings that emerged from the data will be described. The five main themes that emerged from the data were (1) communication with school social workers, (2) communication with peers, (3) communication with family, (4) skills, and (5) life comparisons. Each of the themes and subthemes will be discussed in this section. Table 3 illustrates the effects texting had on adolescents’ communication and the corresponding themes and subthemes.
Themes, Subthemes, and Sample Responses among School Social Worker Respondents
Subtheme Sample Response
Theme 1: Communication with school social workers
Convenience “Texting has been a helpful tool for me I can give a quick
positive reinforcement or encouragement through a text.” Bullying and teasing “They don’t realize how quickly they can hurt each other
and how fast it can spread with texting.”
Emergency situations “They will call me or text me and say one of their friends
is talking suicide.”
“Texting comes up in negative aspects with bullying and harassment, peer-to-peer conflicts.”
“Actual texting causes them to lose that face-to-face interaction, but when they actually are engaging in face- to-face they are being interrupted by someone texting them.”
“Shy kids may be more willing to text a classmate a question about school or to hang out.”
Theme 3: Communication with family
“I think it allows them to stay in touch more, and parents are able to check on their son or daughter quite easily.” “There is too little communication happening between parents and their adolescents because of the technology that we have everywhere.”
“The shortening of words and slang spelling, some adolescents’ writing skills are affected by that.”
“I think texting allows them to avoid a lot of challenging situations which are really the situations where you have to learn how to communicate.”
“Lots of drama seems to occur among friends through texting.”
“Texting could affect their ability to make decisions about the people they come in contact with. It will affect them later in life when they are trying to get a job or work with others, they may not have the social skills necessary to communicate successfully.”
Theme 5: Life comparisons
My life “With a land line, for example, our parents knew that we
were calling from our girlfriend’s if they called the girlfriend’s house and the parent picked up and said, ‘No,
Suzie ain’t here,’ you had concrete evidence. It is hard to track electronic devices that way.”
Their life “In my generation we would be writing notes in class,
and so in a note you wouldn’t have written secrets or things you knew. There was a chance the teacher might catch you, so you probably wouldn’t put your most private secrets in a note, but sometimes kids did. Now it’s this whole cyberworld where anything goes.”
Note. This table includes the themes and subthemes that evolved from this study. Sample responses for each subtheme are provided in this chart.
Texting Communication with School Social Workers
All of the respondents (n = 7) reported communicating with their clients through face- to-face meetings, group sessions, phone calls, and e-mail contact. A slight majority of school social worker respondents reported that they used text communication with their student
clients (n = 4; 57%). The number of respondents who did not use text communication with their student clients was slightly lower (n = 3; 43%). When analyzing the data on communication with school social workers, three subthemes emerged: convenience, bullying and teasing, and emergency situations.
Convenience. Texting as a convenience was seen by the respondents as a way for parents and their adolescent to keep in contact quickly and easily. Texting as a convenience was stated six times throughout the interviews by respondents. Respondents stated texting as being quick communication, it can be used 24/7, and there was no need to leave to find a phone at a basketball game, or in a movie or a restaurant. “It is a quick and simple way of communicating, it is easy for adolescents.” Another respondent stated that, “If a teenager needs an answer from a parent like can I go to the basketball game they don’t have to wait until the parent gets off work they can text them. ”
Bullying and teasing. Bullying and teasing through text messaging emerged as a subtheme over the course of four separate interviews. One participant explained how, over the course of texting, things could get quickly out of hand. She noted how, in the past, students had bullied and teased one another without realizing how much damage they inflicted upon others: “They don’t realize how quickly they can hurt each other and how fast it can spread with texting. It gets out of hand for them very quickly.” Another respondent indicated that she has seen texting used as a medium for bullying and teasing: “Texting is a huge opportunity for being bullied and teased. You open the door to all things that include a way for adolescents to get inappropriate things out, thinking no one is going to see.
Emergency situations. The helpfulness of text messaging during emergency situations came up during two interviews. One participant noted that she used text messaging to help in suicide prevention among her students, who would text if they felt they or their friend was in danger of suicide and/or needed help assessing the situation and to get resources:
Situations where suicide is usually a strong concern, they call me or text me and say one of their friends is talking suicide or writing suicide on their Facebook or Tumblr. They are very concerned and wondering what course of action they should take, and so they are seeking advice and resources that way, usually they give me a little more detail and there is a dialogue back and forth and I give them the appropriate method, all through texting. I then follow up with them personally, usually the next school day.
Another participant, who was working with a student who had an abusive father, indicated that she relied on texts in her communication with this particular person: “Sometimes she needed to leave home, and she lived outside of town and didn’t have neighbors and her mom worked nights, so if a situation came up where she needed transportation to somewhere safe she could text me.”
Texting Communication with Peers
Within the second main theme, the effect of texting on peer communications, all seven respondents agreed that texting was the preferred method of communication among adolescents and across peer-to-peer communication. Subthemes found within this theme were inappropriate connections, losing face-to-face connections, and connections at school.
Inappropriate connections. Bullying and sexting were some of the inappropriate connections mentioned by respondents. The majority of respondents (n = 5; 71%) stated that they felt the use of text messaging contributed to inappropriate connections among peers. All five respondents who spoke about how texting led to inappropriate connections indicated that they did not believe adolescents understood the larger implications or the public nature of their text messaging. One respondent provided an example of adolescents’ lack of awareness of situations in which text messages were inappropriate, stating, “I have had meetings with students about the appropriate use of cell phones and what the implications are that can occur through texting, such as texts that contain sexual content or pictures. ” Another respondent explained, “Texting has created a false sense of confidence in people: they feel they can do things electronically that they might not otherwise do.”
Face-to-face connections. Participants mentioned losing face-to-face communications because of texting five times during the interviews. Each of these respondents said that they felt texting was detrimental to adolescents’ social development because no face-to-face connection occurred. One respondent noted that texting had contributed to adolescents’ decreased or lost face-to-face connections with one another. This respondent stated,
I think the texting alone causes them to lose that face-to-face interaction, but when they are actually engaging face-to-face they are being interrupted by someone texting, so it seems they are never really fully present in their interactions.
Another respondent noted the lack of eye contact among adolescents and stated, “ When I am dealing with students, eye contact is almost nonexistent, you know, they are looking down, they don’t engage anymore.”
Connections at school. Texting was used as a way for students to ask peers for help with homework, or for shy kids to reach out. Four respondents stated that texting was a way for students to connect with others. One of those ways was by reducing the anxiety of not having to talk face-to face. One respondent indicated that texting was a way in which shy students reached out to others at school when they might not have done so in person:
If they are shy they might be willing to text a classmate a question about school or to hang out, so there are some positives, ways that it might open some doors for students who don’t like the face-to-face interaction.
The text connections at school were mostly in relation to peer-to-peer interactions. One respondent who said she communicated with students by text during emergency situations stated,
I don’t give out my number, but you know it is one of those things that becomes public knowledge. I can’t prevent it, I just have very stern boundaries. I think technically they are not supposed to have my number.
Texting Communication with Family
Within the third theme, the effect texting had on family communication, the subthemes found were enhanced communication and decreased communication.
Enhanced communication. Text messaging was seen as enhancing communication for the majority of respondents. Six respondents (86%) agreed that texting enhanced communication between parents and their adolescent children. Each of these respondents indicated during their interviews that they saw texting as a quick and easy way to exchange relevant information. These respondents reported that with adolescents’ lives being so full and busy, texting helped families know where each other were and where they needed to go. These respondents further expressed that texting allowed parents and children to keep in contact easily. One respondent stated,
Texting can be so helpful for parents; I know it is helpful to me when I am trying to communicate a quick message to my kids. I think it is an easy and convenient way for parents to keep in touch with their kids.
Another respondent noted it was easy for parents and their children to stay in touch, stating,
I think it allows them to stay in touch more, and parents are able to check in with their son or daughter quite easily with just a simple text, and if the adolescent is not willing to phone home and let them know every place they are, they may be willing to send their parent a text to let them know what is going on.
Decreased communication. Texting was seen as a way communication decreased.
One respondent stated that texting was not beneficial in terms of overall quality of family
communication. She stated that texting decreased communication and that texting was
actually contributing to families not connecting with each other:
I see that there is so little communication right now happening between adolescents and their parents because of the technology that we have everywhere. Kids get in the car and there is a video or DVD player or they are texting their friends or playing a game on an iPod that there is literally no communication happening.
The fourth main theme that emerged was skills and how adolescents are deficient in social skill development because of texting. All participants (n = 7) stated during their interviews that adolescents engaged in text messaging to avoid feeling uncomfortable and to avert conflict situations. All seven respondents stated that they believed that texting hindered adolescents’ development in one of four ways: deficits in skill development, avoidance, conflict, and application to life skills.
Deficits in skill development. Texting was seen by participants as causing deficits in skill development among adolescents. Every respondent (n = 7) stated that she believed that texting was a correlate or a cause of deficits in adolescent skill development. Respondents specifically discussed deficits in adolescent social development and written or verbal language development. One respondent who noted that adolescent writing and grammar skills suffered due to texting stated,
Their written communication is also suffering. They are lacking in their spelling and grammar, that can be influenced when you are texting and you are doing short little phrases, and then when they have to write their texting language can show up.
Another respondent stated, “The shortening of words and slang spelling, some adolescents’ writing skills are affected by that.” Yet another respondent stated that texting negatively impacts spelling and grammar: “Texting has been said to affect writing skills also spelling.”
During their interviews, five respondents discussed how texting contributed to loss of verbal skill development among adolescents. One respondent stated, ‘7 think adolescents may be losing very important social skills that may not be good for their development or their adult lives.” Another respondent stated, “The impact of texting on communication is not doing adolescents any favors with respect to their social skills. They are unable to hold a conversation with adequate eye contact.”
Avoidance. Avoiding face-to-face situations with texting was mentioned by a majority of the respondents. Four out of seven of the respondents (57%) stated during their interviews that texting contributed to adolescents’ avoidance of communicating in face-to- face situations such as asking for assistance or avoiding conflict with others. They noted that adolescents were growing up not learning how to deal with face-to-face situations appropriately. One respondent stated, “I think texting allows them to avoid a lot of challenging situations which are really the situations where you have to learn how to communicate.” Another respondent commented,
They seem to avoid situations where they have to actually talk to a real person. I have noticed with adolescents that if someone does not want to do something or answer something they just don’t reply at all; they become missing in action, so to speak.
Conflict. Conflict because of text communications was reported by four out of seven respondents (57%). This indicated that adolescents’ use of text messaging increased the likelihood of conflict in adolescent lives when communicating with peers and/or family. One respondent provided an example of how texting seemed to produce conflict: “Lots of drama seems to occur among friends through texting.” Another respondent stated, “I think texting causes excessive drama and gossiping. Hurting people’s feelings through texting is quite common.” Yet another respondent suggested that texting caused conflict between parents and adolescents, as well as with their peers, and stated, “The excessive use of texting comes up a lot, parents are fighting with their kids because they think they are texting too much, mostly it is about their own relationships with peers that the conflict comes up.”
Application to life skills. Four respondents stated that they perceived texting as detrimental to adolescents and their ability to gain fundamental life skills for adulthood such as obtaining a job or communicating with co-workers. One respondent stated, Texting could affect their ability to make decisions about the people they come in contact with. It will affect them later in life when they are trying to get a job or work with others, they may not have the social skills necessary to communicate successfully.
Another respondent said that she worried that adolescents would not be successful in their careers because of texting. This respondent indicated,
They are going to be faced with a lot of issues in their adult lives and when they are in their career world relationships, I mean, not everything can be done by texting, your job or very few jobs can be done by texting, so you get into a position at your job where you may have a conflict with a co-worker but you have never practiced knowing how to handle this situation so now you are in trouble because you are lacking all those fundamental skills.
Yet another respondent noted that she worried about whether texting decreased adolescents’ overall levels of initiative. This respondent stated,
The other thing I have noticed over the years is a lack of or decreasing initiative in students. They don’t know how to personally approach another human and ask for help or how to approach someone when they want to pursue, like, job applications, things like that, because with texting, they can take time to reword things on texting, you know, so they feel they have it perfect and then send it, they can’t do in-the- moment stuff anymore, so I feel in that way it has been very difficult and not good for the development of adolescents.
Comparing participants’ lives to the adolescent lives was the fifth main theme, life comparisons, with two subthemes that emerged as my life vs. their life. The subthemes were a comparison of the quality of life now and when the respondents were growing up.
My life. My life refers to how the participants’ lives were different because texting was not a part of their lives. Four out of seven (57%) respondents referenced their upbringings and how they benefited from growing up without texting. These respondents also noted that they were able to obtain needed social skills for success, that their parents knew their whereabouts (e.g., could called via landline), and that overall they were able to develop more meaningful relationships through voice-to-voice and face-to-face communication. One respondent reflected,
As a teenager myself we used to sit on the phone for hours, and our parents used to complain about that but at least we were actually talking with each other and learning to understand verbal cues and hearing different vocal intonations. With texting the face-to-face or voice-to-voice aspect is eliminated.
Another respondent stated that today’s parents could not really follow up with their children due to the absence of concrete evidence regarding their children’s whereabouts. For example, this respondent stated,
With a land line, for example, our parents knew that we were calling from our girlfriend’s if they called the girlfriend’s house and the parent picked up and said,
“No, Suzie ain’t here,” you had concrete evidence. It is hard to track electronic devices that way.
Their life. This subtheme consisted of reasons given by respondents for why texting made life harder than when they grew up without texting. The lack of traditional phone conversations was given as a reason for life being more difficult now. Adolescents’ misunderstanding of the vastness and free availability of texting was compared to writing notes to peers. Four respondents stated that adolescents’ lives were more difficult today because of texting. The same four respondents who stated that they felt their lives growing up without texting were better also felt that adolescent lives today were affected negatively by texting. One respondent stated that passing notes in class in her day was similar to texting today. She said,
In my generation we would be writing notes in class, and so in a note you wouldn’t have written secrets or things you knew there was a chance the teacher might catch you, so you probably wouldn’t put your most private secrets in a note, but sometimes kids did. Now it’s this whole cyberworld where anything goes.