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Just as you thought: More teens are texting

A new study finds that daily text-messaging by teens has "shot up" dramatically in the past 18 months.

Daily text-messaging by teens has "shot up" dramatically in the past 18 months, according to a new study, "Teens and Mobile Phones," from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

In February 2008, Pew estimated 38 percent of teens were "daily texters," compared to 54 percent in September 2009, when the study was conducted. Pew said half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day; one in three send more than 100 messages a day; and 15 percent send more than 200 text messages daily, or more than 6,000 texts a month.

“Texting is the form of communication that has grown the most for teens during the last four years,” the Pew report said. Between 2006 and 2009, “the percent of teens who use texting to contact friends outside of school on a daily basis has gone from 27 to 54 percent. Face-to-face contact, instant messaging, mobile voice and social network messaging have remained flat during the same period, while use of e-mail and the landline phone have decreased slightly.”

The phenomenon is hard to miss in most places around the nation, as teens text on the street, in restaurants, movies, classrooms and at the dinner table at home.

“My parents will kind of joke about it," said one high school girl interviewed by Pew. "I think my last phone bill had ... altogether 3,000 text messages and they were like, 'How do you even do that?' ... But I don’t think it’s too big of an issue. They wouldn’t actually get mad about it since it’s unlimited."

Girls are heavier texters, Pew said, typically sending and receiving 80 text messages a day; boys send and receive 30 text messages daily. And, “Even though most schools treat the phone as something to be contained and regulated, teens are nevertheless still texting frequently in class,” according to the report.

Voice calls for mom and dad
Seventy-five percent of teens ages 12 to 17 now have cell phones, up from 45 percent in 2004, the Pew report said, and text messaging has become "the most frequent way that teens reach their friends," more so than face-to-face meetings, instant messaging, e-mail and voice calling.

Voice calling is "still the preferred" way for teens to use to connect with their parents, the report said, and on average, teens "typically make or receive five calls a day."

There also is a "substantial minority" — about 22 percent — of teens who do not actively use text messaging, sending and receiving between one to 10 texts a day, Pew said.

Parents were also interviewed for the study, and 64 percent of them said they "look at the contents of their child’s cell phone," and 62 percent say they have taken away their child’s phone as punishment.

Unlimited texts not only reason
The "widespread availability" of unlimited text-messaging plans, offered by many wireless carriers, "has transformed communication patterns of American teens, many of whom now conduct substantial portions of their daily conversations with friends via texting," said Amanda Lenhart, Pew senior researcher and co-author of the report.

Seventy-five percent of teen cell phone users have unlimited texting plans, the study found, compared to 13 percent who pay a per-message charge.

"Some 72 percent of all U.S. teens are now text message users, up from 51 percent in 2006,” the Pew report said. “Among them, the typical texter sends and receives 50 texts a day, or 1,500 per month. By way of comparison, a Korean, Danish or a Norwegian teen might send 15 (to) 20 a day and receives as many. Changes in subscription packages have encouraged widespread texting among U.S. teens and has made them into world-class texters.”

But unlimited texting plans aren't the only reason for the increase in text messaging, said Scott Campbell, University of Michigan assistant professor of communication studies, and co-author of the study.

"Texting plays a central role in the lives of teens because it provides them with a private 'back channel' to carry out their social lives as they see fit," he said. "It allows them to interact and coordinate with their peers under the radar of their parents, teachers, and other authority figures.

"Teens in the U.S. are now fully realizing the autonomy this affords them, as have teens in other technologically advanced societies such as Japan and certain Northern European countries. Unlimited text plans only help fuel the fire, but it has just as much to do with social forces as it does with developments in the industry."

Texts be 'strategically ambiguous'
The university and Pew collaborated on research, which included focus groups with teens in four cities.

"I was also struck by the way teens are using text messaging as a way of having more control over their communication with their parents," Campbell said.

"Some of them described situations of being out with their friends and texting, rather than calling, with their parents because it allowed them to be strategically ambiguous about where they were and what their plans were."

As an example, he cited a teen using text messaging "to ask if they can go to the movies when they are already there. My take on this is that there are only so many questions a parent can ask in 160 characters (the maximum allowed in a text message), which plays to a teen's advantage when negotiating their social affairs."

Pew and the University of Michigan have conducted previous research on teens and text messaging, including a study released last fall that found a third of teens ages 16 and 17 say they have texted while driving, and 48 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 say they have been in a car when the driver was texting.

Sometimes 'impersonal'
While 25 percent of teens “report having long personal text exchanges at least once a day,” some also realize that there are times when talking in person or by the phone might be more rewarding — and faster.

"I like that you stay connected easily and stuff and I text a lot, but I feel like texting is kind of impersonal and it’s not the same as face to face conversation," one high school girl told Pew researchers.

"And texting takes a lot longer to say what you want to, so if you are texting someone for a while, you are like, 'Oh, man, we’ve been texting for like two hours,’ when in reality if you were having like a conversation, it would be like a 10-minute conversation. So you feel like it is a more in-depth conversation than it really is. It’s kind of like a false sense of communication I guess."

'Lost' without a phone
In focus groups with teens, Pew also learned that they “are generally reluctant to shut their phones off completely, with many of the teens we spoke with saying adamantly that they never turn their phones off or turn them off only when the battery is dying or when they are getting spammed....Teens in the focus groups more commonly described themselves as feeling ‘lost,’ ‘naked’ or ‘exposed’ when they are without their phones.”

Among other findings in the study:

  • Parents of 12- and 13-year-old girls are more likely to report the "most monitoring behavior," and "limiting a child's text messaging does relate to lower levels of various texting behaviors among teens," Pew said. "These teens are less likely to report regretting a text they sent, or to report sending sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images by text," also known as "sexting."
  • 54 percent of text-message using teens "have received spam or other unwanted texts," and 26 percent say they have been "bullied or harassed through text messages and phone calls."
  • 24 percent of teens attend schools that ban cell phones from school grounds, but 65 percent of teens with cell phones still bring them to school, and 58 percent say they have sent a text message during class.
  • 43 percent of all teens who take their phones to school say they "text in class at least once a day or more."
  • 48 percent of parents use their child's phone to monitor their location.
  • 69 percent of cell-owning teens "say their phone helps them entertain themselves when they are bored."
  • 83 percent use their phones to take photos; 64 percent share photos with others using their phones; 60 percent play music, 46 percent play games and 32 percent exchange videos with their mobiles.
  • 27 percent go online using their phones, 23 percent access social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace on their mobiles; 21 percent use e-mail and 11 percent makes purchases using their cells.

The study is based on a parent-teen cell phone survey of 800 teens age 12-to-17 years-old and their parents and on nine focus groups conducted in four U.S. cities in June and October 2009 with teens between the ages of 12 and 18.

The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.