The Safety Factor
When kids started venturing online in the mid-to-late '90s, many parents worried about how they'd interact with strangers -- especially the big, bad adults said to be lurking around every cyber-corner. But two significant reports this year confirmed what most screen-monitoring moms have come to realize: By and large, kids now spend the majority of their online time with the same people they know in real life -- friends from activities, church, and school.
It's only natural: Between the ages of 8 and 13, kids are developing key relationship and communication skills, and typically want to spend as much time as they can with peers. Technology just gives them new ways to do that. Texting, in particular, seems tailor-made for the tween psyche. Not only does it allow users to perma-connect with their social group, it also gives them all sorts of new ways to either include others (by sharing peeks at the screen or using slang) or exclude them (by typing silently while next to Mom on the couch).
Not surprisingly, kids love it. Nielsen Mobile, which tracks consumer phone habits, found that the average cell phone customer sent and received about 1.5 texts for every call, while subscribers under age 12 exchanged 3 texts per call. (Of course, older kids have both beat: Teens between the ages of 13 and 17 were seven times more likely to tap.)
Texting, IMing, e-mailing -- anything, in fact, that's not immediate and face-to-face -- has a bonus, notes Nathan Freier, Ph.D., a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who studies how people interact with technology: It allows a buffer against awkwardness during what's already an awkward (and emotionally freighted) age.
"The more richly you engage someone, the more potential there is for embarrassment," he says. "Short text messages relieve kids of that anxiety." There are dangers, of course, in telling a girl you like her via text message -- notably, that she'll forward your note to the whole school. But for tweens, this pales next to the sinking feeling of having to watch her face as she decides how to reject you.