They're texting. They're instant-messaging. They're texting while instant-messaging.
As any mom who's found herself driving a car full of cell phone-tapping tweens or friending her firstborn on Facebook knows, today's kids have more ways to stay connected than ever before. And, boy, are they using them. According to industry research, 61 percent of virtual-world visitors are between 3 and 11, and 22 percent of kids ages 6 to 9 already have their own cell phone. In a study in the journal Pediatrics, 58 percent of kids 10 to 15 listed a form of communication as the major reason to go online. These are things that make moms go Hmmm. We all realize that this generation is going to have to be tech-savvy to be successful. But between social networking, interactive gaming, web communities, IMing, and everything -- especially texting -- that comes with cell phones, it feels like our kids are spending an awful lot of time engaging others through a screen at exactly the same time as they're supposed to be learning to form and maintain relationships.
Should we worry? It's hard to tell. Scientists are just starting to study the social effects of these new types of communication, and much of their research focuses on adults and teens, not kids. By poking through those studies, though, it is possible to glean a few likely answers -- and, it turns out, there's much to be hopeful about.
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.
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.
Scratch at the surface of some moms' technology worries, and a core concern is revealed: Is time spent texting, tweeting, and friending squeezing out hours spent with parents and siblings? Apparently not. Despite the fact that married couples with kids have the opportunity to be in communication with people outside the family 24/7 (they're the most wired households in the country, often enjoying a broadband connection, multiple cell phones, and multiple computers), these families are actually experiencing "a new connectedness" among themselves, according to research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. They call each other more during the day than do other households. They e-mail out-of-town relatives. They relax at home by showing each other funny clips on YouTube or Hulu. (Something that is being squeezed out, actually, is TV time.)
Marion Underwood, the researcher studying kids' social habits, says she's been surprised by how much her kids actually are using the phones to keep in touch with their families. Indeed, when the researchers distributed BlackBerrys to the students, Mom was often the first person a kid texted.
"I never would have guessed that would be the first thing they'd want to do," she says. "I assumed a friend would be the first choice."
"I love texting to get hold of my sons," admits Denver-area mother of two Terri Priday. "And when I'm in a meeting, they can text me and they don't have to wait two hours for an answer. They'd rather text than talk anyway."
In fact, texting is a remarkably efficient way for tweens to interact with their parents. For, on average, eight words or less (judging by the average length of a college student's messages), texts usually get a quick response, reassure Mom you're thinking of her, and keep conversations from turning sticky (either because some issue comes up or because she can hear you're so obviously not at the library).
And some parents are really grateful for that contact. When one father wrote in to the tech-news site CNET to report his son's high text tally -- more than 24,000 pings sent and received in one month, thankfully on an unlimited plan -- he guiltily admitted that among his first reactions had been pride, because his son had exchanged twice as many messages with him as with his mother.
What 2 Watch 4
There is one dark cloud in all this techie-togetherness. While the Pew parents were happy to be able to reach each other and their kids while apart, they were less likely to eat dinner as a family than were other households, and tended to report feeling dissatisfied with family and leisure time. A study by computer software maker Norton made a similar finding: When total time spent online increased beyond a certain point, both kids and parents reported feeling less connected.
"There was a real hunger on both sides -- kids and parents -- to have more face-to-face time," says Marian Merritt, an Internet-safety advocate for Symantec, maker of Norton computer-security products.
But it's instructive to see where the Pew parents placed the blame for the disconnect. Mostly white-collar and middle-class, they said technology had eaten into their family time by blurring the line between work and home. They were the ones glued to the computer, churning out that last report. (And probably sneaking in a little surfing after: Norton found that 47 percent of parents spend time on social networking sites, as opposed to 46 percent of their kids.)
"Kids are watching what their parents are doing and modeling that behavior," says Megan Moreno, M.D., a physician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, who sees adolescents as patients and has also studied their online habits. "The kids whose parents are texting and taking calls while their kids are talking? Those are the same kids who take phone calls during our office visits."
Of course, some parents aren't in any position to let a cell phone interrupt one-on-one time with their kids. These are the ones who are already separated from their children by distance, whether because of deployment or some other reason. For them, "ambient intimacy" -- the sense of someone's life you get from a steady drip of mundane Twitter tweets, camera-phone pictures, Facebook updates, or other short electronic messages -- becomes a replacement for living out those moments together.
Christine Zeindler's ex-husband moved to Italy, for example, when their daughters were 5 and 7. The Quebec mother and her ex always coordinated to ensure that he and the girls maintained a relationship. Then Zeindler got her daughters cell phones with data plans.
"He has a BlackBerry, and they communicate with him constantly. That relationship doesn't require me anymore," she says. "It lets them develop their own direct relationships with their dad, and that has to be good."
Robin Mejia is a freelancer who writes about science and technology.