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The Misuse of Tech Still Plagues Teens
An article from Jonathan McKee and David R. Smith at TheSource4YM.com

For years, parents and teachers have wondered if texting was negatively affecting teenagers’ grammar. According to several recent studies, that particular worry might be the least of their concerns.

It’s teens’ driving habits, sleep patterns, and relationships that are being affected by texting.

Texting Trumps Talking
As if it didn’t already dominate teenagers’ preferred mode of communication, texting has continued to rise in popularity during the last couple of years. The Pew Internet and American Life Project’s study entitled Teens, Smartphones & Texting recently reported that teens are communicating with their thumbs more than ever. In fact…

  • 63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives
  • the median number of texts sent on a typical day by teens (ages 12-17) rose from 50 in 2009 to 60 in 2011

Nielsen, in one of their most recent mobile media reports (free registration required), revealed that teenagers 13-17 years old now average 3417 texts per month. This number is a 6% increase from 2009, but a slight decrease from 2010 when it had peeked at 3729 texts per month. (Why the slight decrease in texting in 2011? Our personal opinion is that more kids are using their Facebook and other social networking mobile apps to communicate, necessitating less need for texting. After all, 40% of teenagers now have smartphones, and in June of 2011, mobile app browsing actually surpassed traditional “at home” web browsing. Basically, teenagers don’t need to text as much now that they have access to their mobile Facebook app.)

Either way, be it texting or Facebook messaging, teenagers are doing a whole lot of thumb work to communicate with each other. And that brings up an interesting point: more use of the thumbs means less use of the lips. The Pew study quoted earlier shows that the number of teenagers who actually use their phones to “talk” continues to drop; in 2011, only 26% of teens said they “talk daily” with friends on their cell phones, compared to 38% of teens in 2009.

This is an interesting phenomenon that I touched on in my (Jonathan) recent book, Connect. Many young people are having a growingly difficult time talking “face to face.” If you hang out with teenagers often, you’ve probably witnessed two of them sitting 10 feet from each other…texting each other! At first we saw this trend because texting was novel, but now many young people are showing trends of preferring typing to talking. What started out as something fun and unique might just be becoming a communication crutch.

With that increase in texting, and the decrease in talking, it makes one wonder why we still call them mobile phones….

Tormenting Texts
Regardless, too many of those millions of texts sent on a daily basis qualify as “digital abuse.” According to an extensive study about that issue by MTV and The Associated Press, there isn’t much about teens’ texting habits that will make you LOL. For instance…

  • 76% of 14-24 year olds say that digital abuse is a serious problem for people their age
  • 56% (more than half!) say they’ve experienced abuse through social and digital media, which is up from 50% in their 2009 survey
  • the most frequent forms of digital abuse include people writing things online that aren’t true (26%), people writing things online that are mean (24%), and someone forwarding an IM or message that was intended to stay private (20%)
  • the frequency of digital abuse seems to increase with age; 59% of young adults have experienced it at least once, compared to 51% of teens
  • likewise, sending a “sext” is far more prevalent among young adults (19%) than teens (7%)

Fortunately, there was some encouraging news from this report, as well. 56% of today’s young people claimed they would intervene if they saw someone “being mean online,” compared to just 47% in 2009. Also, there was a 19-point drop in sending “sexts” to online friends. Moreover, there was a 5-point increase in the number of young people who took the time to consider whether or not the information they posted online could come back to hurt them.

Mismanaged Messaging
But the problems associated with teen texting seem to overshadow any good news, and those problems affect several different areas of teens’ lives. For instance, a new study about teen driving behaviors conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has found that the use of electronic devices is the leading cause of “distracted driving” among teens.

Wanna guess which electronic device is at the top of the list?

Yep, cell phones. Talking and texting on mobile devices were the most common behaviors that distracted young drivers, with teenage girls being twice as likely as boys to be distracted.

But that’s the “conscious” area of life that’s being affected; there might be a negative effect on teens’ sub-consciousness, as well. According to reports by the National Sleep Foundation, an organization that studies sleep habits and makes recommendations for healthy amounts of shut eye, teenagers may not be getting enough sleep…and texting may be the reason why.

In their surveys, they found that 56% of Gen Z (ages 13-18) and 42% of Gen Y (ages 19-29) report sending, reading, or receiving text messages every night – or almost every night – in the hour just before bed. (This particular hour is a “wind down” time for the brain that’s believed to be very important for allowing humans to get adequate rest.) Further, cell phones sometimes interrupt sleep once it started. Roughly 9% of Gen Z’ers said that they were awakened after they went to bed every night – or almost every night – by a phone call, text message, or email. So did 20% of Gen Y!

And with teens’ ever-growing infatuation with smartphones, these numbers are likely to increase unless something changes.

So, what can be done, if anything?

Avoiding a Thumb War
When it comes to texting, we want to help our teenagers use their mobile phones – and their thumbs – in healthy ways. But if we’re not careful, our attempts may lead to an unintended round of Thumb War. So here are a few strategies that will help you help your texting teens.

  1. Teach your teenagers proper stewardship of their cell phones. The last time I checked, owning a cell phone was a privilege, not a promise. If young people can’t be trusted to use them responsibly, they shouldn’t have them. But we can do a lot to ensure that they do use them appropriately. For instance, parents can teach/model responsible use of cell phones on the home front, and youth leaders can reinforce those lessons in spiritual settings. Teens know they have to be responsible when they use the family car, why not their cell phones, too? But chances are they won’t unless we teach them how to manage themselves and their devices.
  2. Monitor their use of cell phones. Some parents have internet-filtering software installed on the family computer and/or laptops, but in the Parenting Workshops we lead (both David and Jonathan offer workshops), we’ve discovered that very few parents monitor their kids’ cell phones. I’m not sure why; these days, many cell phones have the exact same access to the web and digital media as computers do. Thus, parents need to monitor those devices, as well. Kids might not be happy about us reading their texts and monitoring their Facebook posts. But be up front about this and tell your teenagers in advance that you plan to do this. Parents don’t need to “sneak around” or “spy.” And we shouldn’t over-react when we find something we don’t like. Doing so will only destroy the trust we’re trying to build and maintain. So, while it’s important that we do this, it’s also important that we do this correctly.
  3. Declare phone-free zones. This is like a “no fly zone” for iPhones. You’ll need to decide what works for your teenager and family, but a good place to start is during meals, throughout homework sessions (unless specifically needed for a project), and in the bedroom after a certain time. Yeah, I can hear it now. “But Mom, it’s only 9PM.” We don’t need to let trivial text messages interrupt truly important moments. Talk about what these zones should be, come to some sort of mutual agreement, and then stick to it. Oh, and this means parents, too. No email replies to the boss during dessert!
  4. Encourage teens to react to misuse quickly and responsibly. With very few exceptions, most teens will undoubtedly witness digital abuse and media harassment in some form. Between Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, text messages, IMs, and emails, teenagers will see and hear hateful, course, racist, hurtful, and vulgar communication from time to time. Be proactive in helping your teenagers deal with this issue. If they know what to do and how to do it before it happens, the chances of them taking appropriate action increases. Don’t wait until your teenager has turned a blind eye to someone else’s pain because they didn’t know the importance of helping or how to help. Establish a game plan as soon as possible.

Yes, there is a lot of misuse of technology in general, and texting in particular, by teens. But fortunately, there is also a lot that we can do to help them change their practices. So, let’s do everything we can to help teens tackle their texting troubles.



Jonathan McKee Jonathan McKee, president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of numerous books including the new Candid Confessions of an Imperfect Parent, and youth ministry books like Ministry By Teenagers, Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation, and the award winning book Do They Run When They See You Coming? Jonathan speaks and trains at conferences, churches and events across North America, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan and his wife Lori, and their three teenagers Alec, Alyssa and Ashley live in California.
 
David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org. David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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