Parent’s Survival Guide To Teens and Texting

“Why do you keep texting back and forth instead of just calling?”

“Did I ask you to text me? No, I asked you to call me.”

“How is it even possible to send 100 text messages in one day when most of the day is spent at school?”

It’s one of those immutable laws of nature: Every teen generation will embrace some new habit that drives their parents crazy. And right now, it’s texting.

When questioned, most teens will shrug or sigh, or roll their eyes and respond with some version of, “This is what we do” — and expect parents to accept texting as a normal teen habit — accept it, not get it. No way would teens expect parents, some of whom can actually recall pre-cordless days, to get it.


“But Everyone’s Doing It!”

Not that texting is solely a teen habit. A 2010 Pew Research Center study reports 72 percent of adult cell phone users send and receive text messages. But 87 percent of teen cell users do, and the real difference lies in the number of texts sent: Where adults average 10 text messages sent and received per day, teens average 50.

If 50 sounds low — parents might say, “My teen can send 50 in an hour!” — realize it’s just an average. Another Pew study found that 1 in 3 texting teens send more than 100 texts a day and almost 1 in 7 teens send more than 200. The report overview concludes: “Text messaging has become the primary way that teens reach their friends, surpassing face-to-face contact, email, instant messaging and voice calling as the go-to daily communication tool for this age group.”

Still, far from all teens are heavy texters. The study also found a substantial minority of teen texters, 22 percent, send and receive just 1 to 10 texts a day. Much of it depends on age and gender: You won’t find many 14- to 17-year-old girls in the light texting group.

The Concerns

For parents, the texting phenomenon is more than baffling; it’s worrisome. When they were teens, problems like sexting and cyber bullying didn’t exist, and the boundaries become even harder to define when the problem isn’t with the message itself but with quantities and timing.

Heather Harlan, a prevention specialist at Phoenix Programs Inc., a substance abuse/behavioral health center, says parents do have reason to be concerned even when the messages themselves are not harmful. She points out that texting, like all habits, has a neurological impact, which researchers are still working to understand.

“Practice makes permanent,” she says. “I think if we look neurologically at how our brains are wired to develop, optimal development comes through contact with other people … That development is a neurological process of watching, learning, and trial and error.”

So in this respect, Harlan explains, the potential problem with texting is not the texting itself but what texting teens miss.

“For example,” she says, “chances are when teens type ‘lol,’ they’re not really laughing — they’re sitting there tapping out letters on a screen — when if they are with friends, they may be really laughing. And laughter is good for the brain. Neurologically, chemically, it’s good for the brain to experience real laughter.”

Harlan also points out that while teens believe texting helps them stay in touch, it can be more isolating. She explains texting teens feel less compelled to seek out face-to-face contact, or even voice-to-voice contact, because texting has satisfied their longing for human connection.

“My term for it is ‘neurological junk food,’ and here’s why,” Harlan says. “Junk food is food that’s high in sugar and fat, but it’s not nutritionally worth anything. Yeah, it has calories, and calories are important to keep the body going, but it’s not nutritional.”

Harlan sees similar traits in texting. “It has calories. It has contact,” she says. “But it’s not going to lead to optimal brain development because these brains are made to function best with real emotional bonding, not just perceived — not ‘lol’ when I’m not really laughing — but real emotional bonding.”



Still, Harlan doesn’t advocate a ban on texting. In fact, she reports that counselors in Phoenix Project APEX, a youth and young adult program, are using texting to check in with and support program participants.

“Originally, when we began using the model, we telephoned them,” she says. “After a few months, it became clear the participants were extremely more willing to connect with the counselors through the week if the counselors texted them.

“Is that what we prefer?” she adds. “No. We prefer face-to-face, but what’s doable? A phone call? A text? OK. Then that’s what we’ll do. There are times to adapt.”

And that message — that sometimes those in the old-school-camp need to adapt —draws “amens” from teens.

“I think one thing parents don’t understand is how almost necessary texting is in this day and age,” says Spencer Claiborne, a 15-year-old accelerated senior at Hickman High School. He reports sending and receiving about 1,800 texts per month, or 60 per day, and says he often chooses texting for its efficiency.

“There are times,” he says, “when I really want to communicate with my cohorts in student government, but I don’t want to call them individually. I don’t want to have conversations with them. I want it to be a simple, one-way conversation.”

He also points out that it’s quicker for him to rap out a text message than to call the person, wait through the ring, go through introductions and then get to the point of the call.

And there’s the matter of social norms. Claiborne says while his mom is fine with short phone calls from him, he would not call his friends to see if they are free to hang out.

“They’d think that’s dumb,” he says. “To them, that’s not what phone calls are used for. That’s how parents use phone calls.”

Annemarie Van Doren, a 17-year-old senior at Hickman, also pleads with parents not to step in and demand control just because texting doesn’t make sense to them.

“Parents will ask, ‘Why don’t you just call them?’ ” she says. “Parents need to understand it’s kind of like etiquette for teenagers. If you call someone, it’s putting yourself out there more than if you text — like how it’s more casual if you write on someone’s [Facebook] wall than send them a private message. A lot of times, when parents encourage teenagers not to text but to call instead, it may be awkward for them.”

You just don’t know.


The Solution: Respect

In the end, good parents help their teens make good choices — and with texting, that usually means setting limits. The more attached teens are to texting, the more parental involvement might trigger teen resentment. And while some resentment is just par for the parenting-teens-course, parents can help limit the negative reaction with a planned approach.

First, says Ryan Worley, program coordinator for Youth Community Coalition, don’t use texting as a platform for criticizing the current teen generation. Don’t let teens hear you rant about how stupid texting is.

“Try to be understanding, and try to help them be healthy and responsible,” he says. “If the message is, ‘Don’t text,’ then the response will be, ‘Wow, you’re really old.’ If the message is, ‘I understand, and you can still text with your friends because that’s important; we just need these boundaries,’ then that’s different.

“I think anytime we as parents can approach youth from a way of not ‘What you’re doing is wrong,’ but ‘How can I help you do what you’re doing in a healthy and safe way?’ that’s a good approach to take.”

Jeremy Risner, student ministries pastor at Christian Chapel church, adds trust is a key factor.

“Not just a parent trusting the child but the child who can trust that the parent is making boundaries and expectations out of love, not control,” he says.

Second, know the limits of healthy and safe texting behavior. Thomas Selva, a pediatrician at University of Missouri Health Care’s Children’s Hospital, offers some basic guidelines.

“I think a good rule of thumb is that texting should not be allowed during homework or after a set time in the evening because it is a constant interruption in concentration,” he says. “Certainly cell phones should not be allowed in the bedroom because texting occurs 24/7 and is a constant threat to adequate sleep. In fact, recent research indicates that cell phones are a cause of significant sleep deprivation in teenagers and are associated with poorer school performance.”

Third, set rules and limits and discuss consequences. Harlan encourages a written contract with specific expectations. Risner adds that parents should abide by the rules, too.

“Are you constantly taking calls, texts, checking Facebook when you should be connecting with your child?” he asks. “Most learning is caught, not taught.”

Fourth, monitor teens’ texting. Many experts recommend parents have access to their teens’ Facebook and text messages.

“Youth who know parents are monitoring where they go and who they are with — even online or in a texting sense — are more likely to think twice about their choices,” Harlan says.

At the least, parents need to monitor quantities and timing.

“A very effective means of starting a discussion about too much texting is to print the logs from your cell phone service provider,” Selva says. “These have the number of texts, as well as the dates and times of messages received and sent. This is invaluable when discussing the impact texting is having on your child. Doing the math to estimate how often your child is ‘touched’ by a text is also helpful.”

Fifth, follow through with consequences — and rewards.

“When they comply, thank them,” Harlan says. “Appreciate them. Affirm them.”

Harlan also shares a quote from her Phoenix Programs colleague Michael Trapp: “It’s easier to start something positive than to stop something negative.”

“And, neurologically, that’s true,” she says. “So maybe instead of saying, ‘Stop texting,’ say, ‘Let’s start having three, four or five family meals a week.’ Move from, ‘I’m concerned about my teen’s levels of texting,’ to ‘What can I start that’s positive with my teen?’ ”

Additional Resources

Two good sites with more information on teen texting, sexting, cyber bullying, sleep impacts and texting while driving:

The Boone County Sheriff’s Department Cyber Crimes Task Click on the “Internet Safety Articles” tab on the left for access to several sites and documents.

KidsHealth: An award-winning, nonprofit site with information on physical, emotional and behavioral issues affecting children and teens, with sections for parents, kids and teens.

Danger! Texting while driving decreases reaction time more than 12 times that of driving drunk. Visit

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