No More Talk: Text Messaging Problems

Story highlights

Phones are disappearing as texting increases

American 18-29 year olds send an average of nearly 88 text messages per day

Psychologists worry that young people who text message may not develop social skills

People who habitually send text messages can damage relationships or miss out on new ones


You don’t want to talk to me on the phone. How do I know? I don’t want to talk on the phone. Nothing personal, I just can’t stand it.

That seems pushy and kind of arrogant. It abandons whatever I’m doing and, well, chooses to engage and makes arrogant noises every time it expects of me. With others! I answer the phone when it’s absolutely necessary, but I’m not very good at hiding my dissatisfaction. A close family member once opined that I was displaying goat-like phone manners, but out of fairness to the goat, they quickly dropped the charges.

So I accepted the arrival of the email, and then the text message, with a deep sense of relief. It meant a conversation that I had complete control over. You can say exactly what you want, when you want to say it. It doesn’t take any more time than it needs to, and you have much more control over whether to do it than you would over the phone. That might make me a misanthrope. It sure drives me crazy. But that doesn’t make me unusual.

(Click here to learn more about the TIME Mobility Poll.)

Telephones are a dying system. According to a Pew Research Center study, the number of text messages sent each month in the United States has exploded from 14 billion in 2000 to 188 billion in 2010, and that trend is slowing down. There are no signs. While not all of that growth has come out of the cloak of the old-fashioned phone, it’s clearly been influenced, especially among young people.

Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 send and receive an average of nearly 88 text messages a day, compared to 17 phone calls. The numbers change as you get older, and the overall frequency of all communications decreases, but even in the 65+ group, the number of daily text messages calls still ranges from 4.7 to 3.8. In the TIME Mobility poll, 32% of all respondents said they would rather communicate by text than by phone, even with someone they know well. This is even more true in the workplace, where communication takes place between colleagues who are not friends at all. “You no longer have to struggle to find time to call or chat,” one poll respondent said, summarizing the business appeal of texting over conversation.

The question, of course, is what is lost when the chatter is gone. Developmental psychologists who study the effects of texting are particularly concerned about young people. This is not only because children are promiscuous users of technology, but also because their interpersonal skills are not yet fully formed. When most adults first got their hands on a text-enabled mobile device, their social quantity was fixed. The ability to have face-to-face conversations may have declined in recent years, but it’s pretty firmly entrenched. Teenagers are not like that. . As TIME previously reported, MIT psychologist Shelly Turkle is one of the leading researchers studying the effects of texting on the development of interpersonal relationships. Turkle believes that by talking to others, children can, in effect, learn to talk to themselves – to think, reason, and reflect. “That special skill is the basis for growth,” she told me.

Turkle cites a text apology, or what she calls “saying ‘I’m sorry’ and hitting send,” as a vivid example of what is lost when you type instead of speaking. “A full apology means I know I hurt you, and I can see it in your eyes,” she says. “When they see that I’m feeling uncomfortable, a sympathetic response kicks in. There are a lot of steps, all of which are skipped when you send a text message.” Apologies are made over the phone rather than in person. Of course, the visual cues are lost, but the voice and the sense of hurt and repentance it conveys is preserved.

Part of the appeal of texting in these situations is that it’s less painful. But the important thing is that it’s painful. “The complexity and complexity of human communication is often underestimated,” Thakur said. “Those things lead to better relationships.”

People who habitually send text messages not only deceive existing relationships, but they can also limit their ability to form future relationships because they are unable to practice the art of interpreting nonverbal visual cues. It’s easy to lie to young children (e.g., “Santa really, really brought me presents”). That’s because they are functionally illiterate when it comes to reading intonation and facial expressions. As with actual reading, the ability to appreciate subtlety and complexity only comes with time and lots of experience. If you haven’t learned these skills properly, moving into the real world with real people can actually be quite scary. “When you talk to kids, they describe their fear of conversation,” Thakur says. “An 18-year-old I recently interviewed said, “Someday, but definitely not right now, I would like to be able to have a conversation.”

Adults are much less likely to develop conversational phobia, but they may learn to avoid conversation primarily because it’s easier. Sending the obligatory birthday greetings via text means you don’t have to fake enthusiasm you don’t really feel. You can text your friends to find out when the party is starting, so you don’t have to ask them “how are you doing?” And what’s worse, you don’t get an answer.

It’s clear that texting is here to stay, and even the most ardent phone proponent doesn’t recommend avoiding it completely. But you can also mix it up and add a little Skype or Facetime so that when you finally make a call, you can actually see and interact with the other person. Turkle warns that too much email can lead to a life of “hiding in plain sight.”

And the whole point of hiding is that it leaves you completely alone.

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