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The Toll of Texting for Teens

Published on: December 30, 2013

by Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

One of my clients calls it “The Terrorism of Texting” in her household. She complains that her kids are obsessed with texting -- first thing in the morning, all day long and into the night. News stories describe the way the whole family can be sucked into the vortex of the online world and out of real-live family connection.

As a psychologist, I hate to come off as a dinosaur, but I really do think that texting has resulted in some big problems out there in the tween and teen world. My biggest objection isn’t even what most people complain about—electronic overkill, driving while texting, sexting, and usurping time that should go to homework, sleeping and other pursuits. Texting has even been associated with health concerns for teens. Those concerns are of monumental importance, but my big beef is about something more subtle, something we’ve come to call "face time." Call me old-fashioned, a relentless brain science geek or a fanatic about empathy and secure attachment (all true), but I think that most of us in the modernized world need to spend more time looking into each other’s eyes, stimulating our mirror neurons and developing both a slowed-down appreciation for relationships and skills for transacting real-live ones.

Why pick on texting? Isn’t it just part of the whole trajectory of human reliance on—and pleasure in—electronic connectedness?

Actually yes, but I think it is a good moment in time to contemplate its collateral damage. Texting is the “next big thing” in the communications world that arouses tweens and teens, helps them join the peer tribe, and thus gives them the feeling that they are liked, important, and belong. For the teen, it’s as if, “I text”, and therefore “I am.” Texting allows tweens and teens to exist in the eyes of their peers (at least in their umbilical machines). No wonder texting is so compelling! All these benefits can be accrued without the burden of arranging time together, dealing with eye contact, coping with interpersonal anxiety, or handling the awkwardness of an actual conversation that even a phone call can stir up, Pretty soon, the tech world will allow us to manufacture a cool avatar for texting so that teens don’t even have to have a real “I.”  They’ll just have to have a smart phone for buying an “I.”

Chapters in our book Getting to Calm address the syndromes: "When your teen wants to be wired all the time" and "When everybody is stressed out." In summary, my advice is: Turn it off, go outside, do creative stuff and get more face time!

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