I have discussed my anti-texting bias in previous posts, but I do recognize that texting can be useful. For example, I taught my mother to text when she was in her late 70s! Recovering from surgery meant to give her a sense of sound, Mum was down to one poorly performing ear. As she prepared to visit family by plane in another state, I realized that she would be virtually deaf upon arrival. My mind filled with worst-case scenarios of family attempting to pick her up at the airport, but being unable to locate her despite repeated calls to her cell phone or airport pages. Mum’s sight is pretty good, however, so I taught her to text a few hours before she departed. That holiday season, she kept me apprised of her activities with several texts per day; I got running commentary on her vacation and she got my responses without any problem .
Although I object to how expensive texting can be, I understand why people might find it useful. Texting allows people to ”say” things when they can’t speak; the advantages of this are obvious and often we are saying things we probably shouldn’t, to people we probably shouldn’t, and at times when we probably should be doing something else. Consider that text messages were allegedly a part of Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs, are used by teachers who prey on their students sexually, and helped cause the downfall of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The consequences of teen sexting have been widely discussed and debated. Less dramatic, but still in the same category of inappropriate use is texting someone while you’re in a meeting or in class.
People text while doing other things, such as watching movies, having conversations, eating, and working. (Note that research on multitasking indicates that the term more properly refers to doing more than one thing poorly.) That’s what one Wal-Mart cashier who texts at work is doing: While customers push their goods up to the cashier, he reads a text. And while I get my credit card out of my purse, swipe, and sign it, he types a text! (I’ve seen this particular cashier do this repeatedly, so I know he wasn’t doing it once in an emergency). People—teens in particular— are even texting and driving, giving rise to increasing numbers of car accidents due to distracted driving. (Oprah Winfrey has been raising awareness to this issue through her “No Phone Zone” campaign.)
About one third of teens send more than 100 texts per day—and this is the primary way that teens communicate (over phone calls, instant messages, emails, face-to-face, and social networking.) Why is texting so popular? Is it because it allows us to seem communicative, even when we really aren’t?
Let me give you a few examples. I have friends and family members who send annual Christmas Day text message blasts to everyone in their address books. It’s great to receive a holiday greeting, of course, but it feels so impersonal. (Is a blast text any less personal than a computer generated greeting card, electronic card, or an annual family newsletter sent to everyone?) A short telephone call, even voice message seems more personal to me than the blast.
Now that Mother’s Day seems to be cause for acknowledgment not only with those who mothered us, but all mothers we know (a post for another time), I have started receiving blast texts wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day; other so-called holidays also bring me blast texts wishing me a Happy Whatever! Given that the text senders and I don’t communicate on a regular basis, I think actual conversations such as “How are the kids?” “And your Mom?” “How are things at school?” would be real—or at least better approximations of—communication. A text message can give the illusion that we are communicating even when we are not.
Ever think about why someone is sending you a text rather than calling or visiting you? I do. Visits are not as convenient (or maybe even appropriate) as other methods of communication. But given that texts are inconvenient to type (at least for some of us) and that there is a 160 character limit, a text message provides a limited form of communication. This makes sense when we remember that we refer to as texts are technically “short message service”. Short message, not full conversation. As one among other modes of communication, texts are fine but if used too often they give the appearance of communication, in a medium that is by nature unable to support a substantive conversation. Texts can’t convey emotion to the extent that a voice or non-verbal cue can, which is why sensitive conversations are not as suitable for this medium. And given that people are often texting while attending to other tasks, how engaged can they really be with the person they are texting or with the people around them?