For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Raising Healthy Kids

Texting and Talking: Kids and Cell Phones

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Most parents think that text messaging is the best way to keep in touch and to keep tabs on their kids, according to a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

And their teenagers certainly agree.  Forty-five percent of Americans ages 12-19 have a cell phone, according to market research company Teenage Research Unlimited.  Thirty-seven percent of teen cell users also use text messaging or texting, with numbers rising every year. Texting is also known as SMS, for Short Message Service.

Texting is outstripping  phone use. Though the number of phone calls has remained relatively steady, the number of text messages is up 450% from just two years prior, according to Nielsen Mobile. Teens ages 13 to 17 averaged 231 phone calls - but 1,742 text messages a month. Cell phone makers have taken aim at this population, which is constantly being enlarged by kids reaching cell phone age. Texting is a social phenomenon that’s changing the way teens communicate with each other. Here’s what some of them say:

Anna, 15: Sometimes I text my friends Susie and Barbie for hours after I go to bed and we talk about everything.

Seth, 17: My team doesn’t have to make a lot of phone calls; we use one message to tell everyone when we win. 

Alex, 16: I put my phone on vibrate and then I can pass notes to my friend in the class down the hall.

Susanna, l4: I texted my vote on American Idol and she won.

Emily, 13: I couldn’t live without it.

Texting has become a new way of social networking, of staying in touch, sometimes 24/7.

Why is it so appealing? 

Texting has advantages that phone calls do not. Teens say texting is a great way to communicate when they are too busy to talk or when making a call would be rude or impractical. And teens can gossip with friends, anytime, anywhere. They can communicate instantly with all of their friends with one message.  Texting adds an element of distance; users can say more by texting than they might feel comfortable with sharing in person, and texting has the possibility of anonymity. Texting also represents a sign of social status which can be quantified by the number of friends contacted

Texting, however, has some disadvantages.

With the increase of web usage on cell phones, texts or cell phone photos can be posted to online sites. Teens don’t always realize that what they post online can be seen by more than just their friends. What they post or what others post about them, can be hard to take down, and can spread to many more people.   

Teens can be meaner when they can’t see another person’s reaction, a practice that has led to the term cyberbullying. According to a recent online survey by Teenage Research Unlimited, nearly a quarter of teens in a relationship have communicated with a boyfriend or girlfriend hourly between midnight and 5 a.m. via cellphone or texting. One in six communicated 10 or more times an hour through the night.  Teens have reported that they have been called names, harassed, put down by their partner, or asked to engage in sex through cell phones and texting.

Some teenagers are sending sexually suggestive photos of themselves and others.  Called "sexting" when it's done by cell phone this has become a nationwide problem that has confounded parents, school administrators and law enforcers.

Also on the downside, texting has provided a new and easy way to cheat on exams. Though phone calls require talking, texting can be done on the sly.  In December 2002, a cheating scheme was uncovered during final-exam week at the University of Maryland, College Park when a dozen students were caught cheating on an accounting exam through the use of text messages on their mobile phones. Most schools ban talking and texting in the classroom, but that doesn't stop everyone.

What Parents Can Do

Teens need parents to set limits on texting use.

Monitor your teenager's use of all technological devices. Text messaging enables children and adolescents to be in touch with and to make plans with people without parental knowledge. Know your kid’s cell phone contact list.

Be specific about how many text messages they can send and receive.

Monitor the monthly cell phone bill to see how children are spending their minutes and discuss the results with them. Keep track of additional service costs, such as ring tones, photos and text messages. Determine how teenagers will contribute to the costs.

Talk about the consequences of sexting.  Since anything can be copied, sent, posted, and seen by many people, it’s possible for everyone to see intimate messages and pictures. When revealing photos are made public the person almost always becomes the object of ridicule and name calling. If someone sends them a photo, have them delete it immediately.  In addition, sending sexual images to minors is against the law, and some states have begun prosecuting kids for child pornography or felony.

Emphasize and enforce the rule that teens should never use a cell phone or text while driving.