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How Texting Changes the Way Kids Communicate

Friends 4 Life

As much as tweens may relish hiding behind Facebook updates and 160-character texts, though, moms know that handling embarrassment and other messy feelings is a necessary part of dealing with others. It's a skill kids have to learn. Will this younger generation's reliance on electronic communication get in the way?

"We just don't know yet," says Freier. Technology -- and the ways kids use it -- is always changing. Widespread texting, for example, only really took off when cell phone companies started offering unlimited-use plans, and that was just a couple of years ago. (Before that, in the Stone Age, kids had to actually sit at a computer -- positively trapped, by today's standards -- to send instant messages.) That's why many of the scary studies cited in the media -- about how texting is making kids depressed, lowering self-esteem, or even giving them a repetitive stress injury nicknamed "texter's thumb" -- hail from countries like Japan and Finland, where texting became popular earlier.

One of the people working to fill the research gap is Marion K. Underwood, Ph.D., director of the Center for Children and Families at the University of Texas at Dallas, who is in the middle of a multiyear study of kids' social behaviors. Six years ago, her team started following a group of kids who were then in the third grade, and they witnessed the switch to electronic communication.

"When they were in the sixth or seventh grade, we started noticing them clutching little cell phones," Underwood recalls. Researchers responded by giving the students BlackBerrys programmed (with the parents' and kids' consent) to capture all text messages. Underwood hasn't finished analyzing all of the texts -- understandable, since, on average, each student sends 1,321 per month, or roughly 43 per day -- but says she's been pleasantly surprised by how much of her kids' chatter is of the 'You go, girl!' variety. "They're building each other up," she says. Notably, those results are in line with what others have found among adults: Most of their texts consist of relationship-lubricating small talk -- not the heart of a friendship, but important for keeping it rolling along.

Among themselves, in fact, kids tend to see technology as extending, rather than replacing, time with friends. When they have to be physically apart, they use e-mails, texts, IMs, and updates to stay in the loop. How else could they deal with interruptions such as bedtime? (Studies actually show there's a reason to have them leave the cell phones outside their rooms overnight -- the lure of its pinging is keeping up the already famously sleep-deprived demographic.) In fact, one set of researchers found that two of the three primary reasons adolescents texted were to make plans to get together and to schedule time to talk (the other was simply to chat). Most texting threads, the study noted, ended with them switching to a richer mode of communication, such as IM, phone, or face-to-face.

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