Is my teen texting too much?

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD

Until recently, my 17-year-old son rarely answered his cell phone when I called. It would just go to voice mail. But when I’d send him a text message saying “Call me now!” (sometimes “Call me now or you’re grounded!”), my phone would ring almost immediately. I made it clear that if I couldn’t reach him there was little point in me paying for the phone, and things got better. I think that it didn’t occur to Zack to answer the phone. Except for me, my husband and his grandmother, everyone communicates with him by text message.

He’s not alone. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center released last week, two-thirds of teen texters are more likely to text their friends than talk to them on the phone. Here are some other interesting stats from the survey:

  • 75% of kids ages 12 to 17 own a cell phone, up from 45% in 2004
  • 72% of teen cell phone users text message, up from 51% in 2006
  • 54% of teens use texting for daily contact with friends, up from 38% in 2008. In fact, text messaging is the most common way teens communicate with each other (more than talking on the phone or talking in person!)
  • One in three teens sends more than 100 text messages a day

This is bewildering to many parents. For most of us, texting is a foreign technology, certainly not part of our daily lives (except maybe to communicate with our teens). So it’s easy to dismiss it. And since by definition we don’t spend a ton of time with our teens, we don’t always realize just how much they are texting.

text_college_student_Texting offers a degree of connectedness that can be supportive and helpful, and it’s nice that kids are communicating via the written word, even if it’s full of abbreviations. But there are some not-so-nice aspects of texting that parents need to be aware of:

  • Texting at school. While most schools either ban or discourage cell phone usage, it doesn’t stop teens.  64% of teens with cell phones have texted in class (Zack has learned how to do it with the phone in his pocket, much to my chagrin), and 25% have made or received calls in class. This raises the concern of cheating—and that they may not be paying full attention to the teacher.
  • Texting can interfere with normal social interactions. I’ve watched teens sit and text rather than talking, and both of my older teens are always trying to sneak in text messages while we’re at dinner.
  • Texting while driving is extremely dangerous. Many states (including Massachusetts) are moving to outlaw this, but it still happens.
  • Teens who keep their phone near their bed at night can have their sleep disturbed by texts coming in during the night
  • Texting can be used for bullying or harassing. In the survey, 26% of teens reported that this had happened to them.
  • Texts can easily be forwarded. This can lead to some really embarrassing or difficult situations.
  • Sexting (sending sexual or suggestive pictures via cell phone) is becoming a problem. And because it’s officially sending porn, it’s a felony.
  • For some teens, texting becomes an addiction. Fifteen percent of teens send more than 200 a day—that’s one every few minutes throughout their waking hours.  This can seriously interfere with daily life.

So what should parents do?

Talk to your kids. Find out about their texting habits. Talk to them about the not-so-nice aspects above; it’s really normal for kids of this age not to have a clue about the possible consequences of their actions.

Set limits on texting. Make sure your kids are following the school rules. Make sure your teen never texts while driving, and doesn’t ride in a car with anyone who does. Set some boundaries at home, too, like no texting during family meals, family gatherings, religious services, etc, or no texting after a certain hour. Your cell phone carrier may allow you to set some restrictions (e.g. on hours your child can text) if you are meeting resistance. According to the survey, about half of parents set limits on texting. And the kids of those parents were less likely to regret a text they sent, less likely to be sexting, and less likely to be in cars where people were texting.

Monitor. I’m all for giving teens independence and privacy, but they are still our responsibility (and most are on a family plan where someone else is footing the bill). And, let’s face it, teens aren’t always truthful (before you jump to defend your teen, answer this: were you 100% truthful with your parents at that age?). Reserve the right to take the phone and read the texts (even if you do it just once or twice a year, the message will be clear). Keep an eye on usage with your bill (you may be able to get more extensive usage information online).

Discuss. What have your experiences been with texting and your teens? Do you have any you’d like to share? Are there any strategies that have worked in your family?