Texting and Adolescent Development

How are adolescents losing autonomy and individuation through texting?

Photo by FreeStocks

Last week the NY Times ran an article with new research on teens and texting—no big surprise that now researchers are asking, “Is this having ill effects on our kids?”  At an average of 2,272 text messages per month (around 80 per day), of course the texting adolescent could be more likely to experience “anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation.”  So would I.

Other researchers have found that it’s not uncommon for some texting kids to send hundreds of  messages per day.  But it’s not the act itself that is raising new eyebrows, but its potential impact on adolescent development.  In particular, the task of individuation, or developing autonomy from parents and personal agency to make decisions in the world, is threatened by texting.  That’s because parents are not only the recipients of many of these texts, but the senders.    One psychologist noted that while adolescents are working at the task of autonomy, “if technology makes something like staying in touch very, very easy, that’s harder to do; now you have adolescents who are texting their mothers 15 times a day, asking things like, ‘Should I get the red shoes or the blue shoes?’ ”

Well said.  So what’s a parent to do?  Part of the problem is that parents feed the exchange back and forth—what mom wouldn’t be flattered by being invited into her daughter’s shoe selection process?—and sometimes use it as a substitute for real-presence parenting.  Another part of the problem is that many parents are just as frequently on their own phones.  The article highlights one girl whose parents were shocked when she sent over 14,500 texts in a month.  She points back at her mom’s “addiction” to her iPhone.  Ouch.  It’s indeed a challenge when we’re modeling the same obsessive behavior we ask our kids to stop (Facebook, anyone?).

So what can we do in our ministries to respond to what was a “cute new trend” a couple of years ago that’s becoming a culture-shifting and perhaps even development-shifting phenomenon? As Marshall McLuhan warned us decades ago, no medium is neutral.  We are beginning to feel the early after-effects of texting without boundaries.  But this is clearly not just a kid issue—it’s a multi-generational issue.  What ideas do you have for responding to kids and families who are text-crazy?  How do we help parents—and kids—think more reflectively about when to text and when not to text, especially in the area of learning to make decisions and gain tools for adult responsibility?