Texting: Passing Fad or Tool of Tomorrow?
Charlotte Owen, a freshman at Pinecrest High School, says she usually has three or four conversations going on at once.
And that doesn't even count the people near her. She's referring to text messages. She estimates she sends about 200 of them a day.
"You can get to the point and not have to keep talking," she explains. "Plus, it's faster."
Owen is far from the only teen who is heavy into texting, which is the art -- some would say obsessive habit -- of sending keyboarded messages via cell phone. In an informal recent survey, 24 of 30 Pinecrest students said they text more often than they talk on their phones.
The PHS students ranked "multi-tasking," the ability to carry on a conversation of sorts while simultaneously doing something else, as the most important advantage of texting. "Speed" was next. The answers "avoiding talking on the phone" and "fun" came in last.
Only one of the 30 didn't have a cell at the time.
In the past few years, texting has gone from being viewed as a perk of cell phones to being considered a primary feature, especially for users between the ages of 13 and 19. A national survey found that the second-most-common use of a cell phone is texting. (The most common use is not talking, but checking the time.)
A study by Harris Interactive of more than 2,000 teenagers in the United States found that four out of five teens carry a cell phone and consider cell phones a status indicator -- even more so than jewelry, watches and shoes.
"In Germany, teenagers don't text as much as they do here," says Annika Sala Hulshof, a German exchange student spending a year at Pinecrest.
Hulshof enjoys texting, she says, and would text more herself if she had an unlimited texting plan.
"Texting is a reflection of how teens want to communicate to match their lifestyles," Joseph Porus, vice president and chief architect of Harris Interactive Technology Group, said in a report on the study's findings. "It is all about multitasking, speed, privacy and control."
Many Parents Welcome It
Parents say cell phones are a part of life now, and many like them as much as their kids do -- although some say they aren't as adept at tapping out text messages.
Mary Lynn Goulden, mother of a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old, says she now gets notifications about her sons' sporting events by text message, rather than through e-mails.
"As a parent, it's convenient for me," Goulden says. "If something happens at school, my boys can text me immediately if they're unable to call."
Enola Lineberger, mother of five kids ranging from 13 to 23, agrees.
"I find it convenient if I need to leave a message for them because it's easier to access than voice mail," she says. "My oldest, who's in law school right now, can text me more easily than she can call me."
Parents, like school administrators and teachers, do want teens to realize that there are both appropriate and inappropriate times for texting. Goulden lists dinner, meetings or time spent with relatives on holidays as examples of times when it's not polite to have a cell phone out.
"Your attention should be on what you're doing, not on texting," she says.
That goes for adults too, she adds.
"So far," says Lineberger, "I haven't had any problems with my kids misusing text messaging."
As far as bills go, Lineberger says, only one of her children, who pays for the service herself, has unlimited texting. Goulden says she found it cheapest to get unlimited texting for the whole family in a package deal.
Schools Enforce Policies
At school, cell phones present many potential problems. They're a possible means for students to cheat on tests, and they can also create distractions during class time.
Pinecrest Principal Joel County says his administration has gone with a clear-cut policy: Students are allowed to have cell phones, but they must be turned off from the time the bell rings in the morning until the students get out of class at 3 p.m.
If students are caught with cell phones in use, they are taken from them and held in the front office until the end of the day. Students aren't allowed to have their phones out for any reason during any exam, test or quiz.
County says cell phones are not a major issue at the school, however. Lately, he says, Pinecrest has faced few violations of the policy.
"It's gotten better," he says. "It's my third year here, and any time you make a change, there's a period when the kids aren't used to the rules being enforced."
As far as cheating goes, County says the school may deal with a case or two each year. But he insists it's not a major problem, especially considering the number of students who attend the school.
Texting and Driving
Although the N.C. General Assembly just passed a ban on texting by all drivers, it will likely be as hard to enforce as the current law forbidding drivers under 18 to use cell phones for any purpose while at the wheel. That law has been in place since 2006.
Law-enforcement officials say it's difficult to tell at first glance whether or not a driver is under 18, and they've issued only 50 tickets in the entire state since the law was passed three years ago. By the same token, it will be hard for officers to tell whether drivers are sending a text message or just checking the time on their phones.
Not surprisingly, young drivers are far more likely than older drivers to send text messages, according to a study released in December 2008 by the AAA Foundation. Nearly half of surveyed drivers between the ages of 18 and 24 admit to texting while driving "at least occasionally."
A study done by Clemson University in 2007 found that drivers who send text messages and use iPods and other MP3 players while driving are 10 percent more likely to stray out of their lanes. Drivers talking on cell phones, although their reaction time was lower, were not found to be any more likely to leave their own lanes.
Teens may be more likely to text while driving, because they've become so adept at sending texts that an overwhelming majority of them claim they can text without looking at the keypad. Of the 30 Pinecrest students, 22 say they could text blindfolded.
Nationally, 42 percent of teens claim the same ability.
Some researchers argue that teens' aptitude with texting is a symptom of a much larger phenomenon: a change in the way they absorb knowledge.
"Students in the 21st century don't learn in the same way," says Liz Kolb, a former teacher and author of "Toys to Tools, Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education." She adds: "They don't see why learning should be limited to the four walls of the classroom, or the stacks in the library. They want to learn any way, any time, any place."
Kolb investigates ways teachers can use cell phones in the classroom. For students, Kolb says, cell phones are a powerful tool that they already own and know how to use. Most importantly, students like using them.
Plus, by using cell phones to perform tasks that otherwise require expensive equipment, teachers can save their schools thousands of dollars.
Some 'Never Stop'
The Web site polleverywhere. com offers a free text-message voting application. If a teacher were to use it, he or she would ask a class a question, then have the students send text messages answering it. The teacher would be able to tally the results from his or her computer. This would be an easy way to poll the class and measure how many students know the correct answer, and the school wouldn't have to spend a penny.
Kolb says she encourages teachers to ask their students how many are on an unlimited texting plan, so that parents don't end up paying high fees for extra texts.
There are also free resources to create campaigns via text message, similar to the way presidential candidate Barack Obama was able to send text messages to his supporters during his campaign. Students could create their own campaigns for class projects, while learning how to manipulate a new technique with much potential.
Many of these Web sites and resources offer special packages for educators.
"The most recent reports say 82 percent of the U.S. population have cell phones, and 76 percent of sixth- through 12th-graders have their own cell phones. In contrast, only 71 percent of the U.S. has Internet access," says Kolb. In rural areas especially, studies have shown that families are more likely to have access to cell phones than to the Internet.
Kolb suggests that since the biggest concern with cell phones is that they're used inappropriately, then perhaps cell phone etiquette should be taught in schools. Kids should know about legality issues in using cell phones, and should be briefed on the dangers of texting while driving, she says.
There is at least one potential issue arising from cell phone use that teens don't have to worry about.
"Blackberry thumb," pain in the thumb muscles caused by extended use of a Blackberry mobile device, only troubles older users. Teens' thumbs are more flexible, leaving them unaffected by the strain on their muscles.
Meanwhile, the youth texting craze shows no signs of slowing down.
"I have friends who never stop," Pinecrest sophomore Alexa Zoellner said in a recent interview. "I would probably text more than I do, but my phone's broken."
Contact Laura Eddy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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