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Hyper-texting teens' troubling behaviors

By Jennifer LaRue Huget

Research reported Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association suggests that teens' excessive text-messaging is linked to their increased risk of tobacco, drug and alcohol use, fighting and having sex.

Excessive texting, called "hyper-texting" in the study and defined as texting more than 120 messages per day on school days, was reported by nearly 20 percent of the 4,257 Midwestern high school students included in the survey conducted by lead author Scott Frank. Those hyper-texters were twice as likely as less-texty kids to have tried alcohol, for instance, and more than three times more likely to have had sex.

The associations held even when the study controlled for the fact that many of those hyper-texting kids were of low socioeconomic status, were minorities or had no father at home. (Similar results were found among the smaller group -- 11.5 percent -- of students who reported spending more than three hours a day on social networking sites.)

The press release announcing the research includes this unfortunate quote from Frank:

"The startling results of this study suggest that when left unchecked texting and other widely popular methods of staying connected can have dangerous health effects on teenagers."

Some kids cannot quit their personal technology, texting, facebook, etc. even while on vacation as network connections have no boundaries. (Chuck Snyder/Special to the Washington Post)

But the material presented at the conference makes clear that the study claims no cause-and-effect relationship between texting and the reported behaviors. And Frank himself told me on the phone that, while he takes responsibility for that quote's being in the press release, "I've tried to communicate with all the people I've talked with that the study was not intended to show causality."

"It doesn't show that every kid who texts a lot will have problems," he said, adding that it does indeed suggest that kids who text a lot are more likely to engage in those risky behaviors than peers who text less.

In the end, Frank told me, "It does depend on who they're texting with. Their choice of friends in the single most important thing. The more texting they do, the more potential for exposure to high-tech peer pressure." That pressure, he suggests, can lead to their attending events and being involved in things they shouldn't.

Frank suggested to me that parents might use the release of this data as a moment to ask themselves "How does this relate to my kids, and should we provoke a conversation about it?"

I'm not an alarmist about texting; it's a reality of life, and there's no turning back the clock on the phenomenon. But as the parent of two -- okay, I'll admit it -- hyper-texting teens, I can sure see the need to limit it. And, now that Frank mentions it, talking about these potential implications with the kids sounds like a very good idea.

Or maybe I'll just have to text them about this.

Do your teens text a lot? Do you restrict their texting in any way? Do you worry about texting's adverse effects? Please comment below and take today's poll.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | November 11, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alcohol and Drugs, Family Health, Parenting, Social Media, Teens  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: New cigarette warnings unveiled
Next: The downside of day-dreaming


Unfortunately in his press release statement Dr. Frank implied causation - that excessive texting causes risk behavior. By 5 pm west coast time last night there were over 270 news stories many of which indicated that this study had found that excessive texting leads to other risky behavior. This morning there were over 750 with similar messages.

Correlation does not equate to causation. We have seen an explosion in the amount of texting young people are engaging in and we have not seen an explosion in youth risk behavior. Increased texting may be associated with, but is not causing increased risk behavior.

What this, and many other studies, has demonstrated is that youth who are at higher risk generally also appear to be those who are at higher risk when using digital technologies. Other studies have documented a correlation between excessive texting and depression/social anxiety. But a study by Pew Internet found that many teens who engaged in a high amount of texting were simply highly social - also highly engaged in school and social activities.

Other studies have found that teens whose parents are actively and positively involved in their lives engage in less risk-taking behavior when using digital technologies. So the key is that we need to encourage parents to be actively and positively involved with their children. Seeking to restrict youth use of digital technologies because of fear this will lead to risk behavior is not "positive." Seeking to ensure that all young people keep their lives in balance and that their use of technology is not interfering with this balance is what is most important.

Nancy Willard
Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use
Author of Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens and Cyberbulying and Cyberthreats

Posted by: NancyWillard | November 11, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

If they're doing that much texting, when do they have time for sex? Or do they just text in medias res, so to speak?

Plus, teenagers don't need cell phones. Take the damn phones away and make them interact with the world. I teach college students who are so absorbed in their texting, they can't manage a simple two-minute face-to-face conversation with an adult. You sucker parents who cave in to peer pressure and give teens phones are raising a generation of inarticulate robots.

Posted by: 7900rmc | November 11, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Translation: kids with more active social lives are more likely to engage in risky social behaviors. We need a study to confirm this? lol.

Posted by: cali_snowboarder | November 11, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

This article is fairly unreasonable. Just because a teenager texts a good amount, doesn't necessarily mean that they are involved in drugs, alcohol, or up to no good. As a sophomore in college who falls under the "hyper texter" category, with friends who also fall under this category, I think that texting and "miscreant" behavior are completely unrelated. Texting is a form of communication, and it is common for teens to hold regular conversations and plan events via text, just the same way that people use phone conversations and email. To say that one form of communication is more conducive to trouble making than another is unfair....communication is communication.

Posted by: hcrock | November 11, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

The study mentioned that excessive texting does not CAUSE the various other behaviors to occur. However, there is a co-relation. In the high school where I teach, students are restricted from using their phones during school hours. They can bring them to school but their "toys" must be in their lockers until the end of the school day. This measure had to be installed because of the numerous incidents of disruption, jealousy, theft, gossip, and even cases of cyber-bullying. That does not mean that cell phone use and texting has been completely squelched in our school. If a student is seen with a phone before the completion of the school day, they are confiscated and returned at the end of the day.
I have noticed that those students who show no discretion and continue to attempt to smuggle in their phones are more likely to engage in other forms of mischief. In other words, those that continue to satisfy their cell phone habit (and break the school's rules) are the same students that are frequently violating other social rules and laws. Students who can't follow a simple request such as keeping their phones at home or in their locker, are less likely to follow other more pertinent rules.

Posted by: slakr1722 | November 11, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

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