Text Messaging as Toy or Tool
Naomi S. Baron, author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, is Professor of Linguistics at American University in Washington, DC. Always On explores the linguistic and social impact of computers and mobile phones. A former Guggenheim and Fulbright fellow, she is also the author of Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It’s Heading, which probes the influence of technology on English over the past 1200 years. Baron is currently studying mobile phone use in cross-cultural context. She writes from Modena, Italy.
Americans are fixated on the dark side of cell phones. First we bemoaned the constant ringing and stentorian voices. Then Americans discovered text messaging, and parents were astounded to find those 15-cent text messages mushroom into two- or three-hundred dollar monthly phone bills. Now a recent article in the New York Times (Laura Holson’s “Text Generation Gap,” March 9) has suggested a more ominous concern: Text messaging is driving a social wedge between clueless parents and their progeny.
The problem? Kids know how to do texting and most parents don’t. But there is more to the story. Unlike talking on a landline or cell phone (where parents can sometimes overhear snippets of conversation), text messaging is more private. With instant messaging on computers, the screens are usually large enough for the savvy mom to glimpse what is written when she enters her daughter’s room to announce dinner is ready. “Accidentally” seeing text messages on cell phones is harder because the screens are so small.
Some adolescents unashamedly text under their parents’ noses: at restaurants, watching television, riding in the car. While parents may feel socially excluded, are such practices real cause for long-term concern?
Viewed from the other side of the Atlantic, text messaging by adolescents in the United States seems reminiscent of the early days of desktop publishing. Once we reveled in experiments with point size, font style, and color. The results were often graphic disasters, as we failed to heed the Delphic warning, “Nothing in Excess.” Gradually word processing became a workaday tool, and our documents calmed down.
In Europe, text messaging (generally known as SMS) first appeared in 1993, giving young people a decade more experience with the medium than their American counterparts. What is still often a toy in America, played on with youthful abandon, has settled into a pedestrian appliance elsewhere, particularly as teen mature into young adults.
Over the past several months, I’ve been talking with Swedish and Italian university students about their mobile phones. There are interesting cultural differences between countries. Several Swedes told me they speak more quietly on mobile phones than when face-to-face, so as not to disturb people around them. Italian students often reported being loud both while on the phone and speaking in person – confirming cultural stereotypes. (One strikingly noisy mobile phone user I overheard in Göteborg, Sweden turned out to be an Italian businessman.)
Europeans have become pros in using their phones. Italians, for instance, often have two phones to take advantage of promotional offerings by different telecommunications companies. (Vodaphone has a great voice-call plan, while TIM is less expensive for text messaging.) Like Swedes, Italian youth know not to leave voicemail, since recipients must pay to open voice messages. And Italian young people have worked out intricate schemes for when to text and when to call. Concetta texts Francesco with a yes/no question (“Meet for lunch at 2?”). If Francesco’s answer is “yes,” he calls Concetta, rings once, and then hangs up. If the answer is “no,” Francesco needs to send a text message.
I was surprised to discover how many Europeans are comfortable turning their phones off completely or ignoring ring tones alerting them to an incoming call or SMS. By contrast, many of my American students report their phones are “always on,” lest a friend find them unreachable and move on to someone else for companionship.
Europeans also have a keen sense of what they can get away with. All the Italians and Swedes I interviewed admitted to doing text messaging during classes when they judge they are not disturbing the lecture. (A reality check: Many professors notice, but feel powerless to intervene.) In fact, Swedes thought it was more problematic to use mobiles in movie theatres than in lectures, since theatre projection systems there pick up phone signals, and everyone knows about the call or SMS.
Make no mistake: Americans are catching up. Half the university students I interviewed admitted to occasionally texting in class. And Americans have their own claims to media virtuosity. My students beat Italians at instant messaging hands down. (Americans have been at it longer.)
We should also remind ourselves that American youth have already proven their ability to enlist new technologies to enhance rather than undermine relationships with their families. In the early 1990s, the press was full of parental testimonials as to how their children off at college were suddenly using email to mend some of the bonds that high school years had frayed. The occasion for reconciliation wasn’t simply geographic distance (which college students and their families have had for decades). Rather, the ability to write – on your own schedule, without interruption, editing before sending – made email a perfect tool for fence-mending, much as handwritten letters has once done.
Today’s young people (in the US, but also in Sweden and Italy) repeatedly report that they often choose to text their friends, rather than call on their mobile phones. The reason is control: The communication is one-way (at the sender’s convenience), and it takes less time than having to exchange pleasantries – and listen to the other person’s side of the story. Perhaps parents can take some comfort in the fact their progeny are exercising the same control in communicating with everyone.
Worried parents would also do well to remember that youthful exuberance (and demands for privacy) have a long history in American culture. Ear-splitting rock-and-roll and “Keep Out” signs on bedroom doors nearly always yield, over time, to modulation and greater sociability. As with everything in parenting, the best response may be simple patience.