Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Texting is not talking

Seems to be stating the literal truth in the headline, but I have to disagree with Sherry Turkle regarding other judgments reported in this editorial. They are not the findings of my doctoral studies into emergent technologies and texting in a youth counselling centre.

I respect Sherry Turkle, I enjoyed her writing in the Second self, Life on the screen, and two blogs were developed in response to readingEvocative objects; Things we think with. One of these regarding my own thinking and use of a mobile. She asks really important questions of how we relate with technologies and how these relate with us.
I agree with her statement in 'Who am we'
"Life on the screen tells how the computer profoundly shapes our ways of thinking and feeling, how ideas carried by technology are reshaped by people for their own purposes, how computers are not just changing our lives but ourselves." And would concur that texting also has an impact. But in this editorial that reports on texting, I think some further considerations are needed.

She is cited saying teenagers' texting habit is slowing their emotional growth.
And an example is provided:
"Years ago, if I saw a kid who talked to his mother 20 times a day, I would say he has an attachment problem," notes Turkle. "Now I interview hordes of college juniors and seniors who routinely text their moms while they're waiting at the bus."
The judgment made is that there is a lack of independence from parents meaning teens are not learning to make decisions on their own.

I think this is a bit harsh, there are many many other factors involved...teenagers seem to have developed a different means of relating; what we have are increased interactions between young people and responsible adults, mum, dad. Please note, such a relationship only works if both parties are involved. However, to have 20 sentences exchanged, really its nothing. Most of us can do that in 10 minutes of conversation. I'm hoping that Sherry Turkle is not implying that talking with a parent for 10 mins a day is either bad for young people or different to a past. The data reported would not support this, its not a longitudinal study. I'm yet to be convinced by the evidence provided that multiple interactions (20) with a parent can be construed as bad, what it is is visibly different.

The article then identifies that there is worse yet as there are opportunity costs: Time teens spend texting is time that they don't socialize face-to-face. With more frequent electronic communication, teens give up real intimacy for the illusion of companionship. "The pressures of communicating at that velocity mean certain things aren't said," notes Turkle. "They need to have other places to have these important conversations."

Again, some further detail would add to a more informed discussion. Here i have some contradictions with my own data. The mobile phone makes it more possible to meet up, not less. What they are not doing, that Dr Turkle's generation probably did, is waiting at home for the phone to ring, waiting for *him* to call, that truly was an isolating act, disempowering even.

The telephone counselling agency I am working with has multiple stories of how its 'easier' to text, but it's worth thinking about how some of the conversations would never of occurred otherwise. The medium provides a portal for what's 'too hard to hear', even by the 'speaker'.

In the types of messaging I have been analysing, such as 'cn i jus txt coz i don wanna b heard' there's a lot going on.
It may be literal, there is the vignette of a young person hiding under the house to avoid a beating...
But its also about acknowledging stuff that can be really difficult to ask for help on. Not everyone was born confidant and well adjusted, some of us spent years learning how to relate. For the counselling agency I work with, the step of texting progresses and there is evidence that it can precede calling or coming in. There is also evidence that a deep conversation can be sustained using a texting medium, that it can be the sole means for counselling a young person through a crisis.

In New Zealand, the Broadcasting Authority release research on the 6th May 2007 indicating 42% of children 6-13 years use a mobile phone. I suspect they also use landlines but thats not news worthy. The threats associated with use are often reported in ways suggesting or promoting moral panic. The concerns raised are the same ones talked of by Carolyn Marvin (1988), in her book titled "When old technologies were new: Thinking about electric communication in the late nineteenth century." The advent of the telephone (the landline) was going to ruin young womens' minds, they would spend so much time prattling nonsense or giggling inanely, it would lead to the death of the family unit. Nonetheless such technologies evolved with no great moral decline and now, we have more mobile phones than people in many OECD countries and far from being indicative of emotional detriment what is suggested are influences desirable to many of us. That we have approximately 50% saturation of phones to people worldwide suggests value. And mobile phones are so common as a means of communicating that they are now the third most likely item to be picked up before leaving the house third only to keys and a wallet.

Texting has become the preferred medium for young people, but reasons for this are worth exploring, especially if there is a supposition that things could or should be different.

For young people of limited financial means, texting on the mobile is often cheaper than talking. There's also the marketing messages that makes out you've got your best mate in your pocket (vodafone) or that it's the way of the future (telecom), anywhere, anytime. Such messages push the dream that we are always wanted and can always have those we want held close. In addition, my mobile isnt only a phone or a text capable message bearer, it also functions as a message pad, appointment diary, alarm clock, even a torch. For others I see that it also functions as gaming devices, music and entertainment systems, even gps roaming to see where the friends are to catch up. Seeing the apparent silent use at a bus stop etc does not equate with texting occurring though its very usefulness and portability does lead to it being used and to its being visibly used. Having something to do with your hands while sitting around in a public place trying to feel cool or inconspicuous may be reflected in apparent texting but alot more could be going on such as 'freeing up memory', updates on the prepay contract, filling in an online survey for credit, appointment checking, writing a book... yesteryear seemed smoking filled this need to do something while waiting. The opportunity cost with a cell phone seems a more positive option in contrast.

I do concur with Sherry Turkle on there being many things that can't be said in 160 characters or less, but no-one said the conversation ends on one utterance. Psychotherapy (Dr Turkle's prior training) also doesn't occur in a single sentence. No-one would expect it to. It's an oddity associated with the medium of text messaging that it tends to be judged on this inaccurate description of what is or isn't possible.

It is an error to judge texting as if it isolates people, it doesnt, there is clear evidence that it's connecting.
It is a further error to judge an utterance as if it were not part of a conversation.

I will go out on a limb here, and make my own judgment; its patronising to tell people who are clearly using a medium that is working for them, that its not.

To conclude, quoting the words of one of the young people who talked with me regarding his use of texting, 'it made it easier to say things'.
Being more able to converse, and more able to connect, are not signs of emotional detriment, quite the reverse.


  1. Just wanted to say hi and thanks for stopping by the Open Fridge Door and dropping a comment. You work is fascinating indeed. You are deeply immersed in the world of education...I am about to step in with some volunteering in the Fall. Excited but daunting.

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