The Joy of Text: A Parents' Guide

When you bought your child a cell phone, you probably thought he would use it to make phone calls. Wrong! The most popular use of cell phones (after checking the time) is texting. This successor to chat means sending short, often cryptic messages, to another phone.


More Teens Text than Talk
On Cell Phones; 58% of
12-Year-Olds Have Cells

Cell phone ownership among young teens has skyrocketed in the past six years, according to a Pew Research Center report. Researchers found that 58% of 12-year-olds owned a cell phone in 2009, compared to 18% in 2004. By age 17, 83% of teens now own cell phones.

Another Pew study found that teens use their cell phones more often to text than to talk. Half of teens send 50 or more text messages daily and one in three sends more than 100 daily messages. The typical teen makes or receives five daily voice calls. Pew researchers also found that blogging has declined among teens, dropping to 14% in 2009 from 28% just three years earlier.

Only 8% of internet users age 12-17 were using Twitter in 2009, compared to 66% who use or receive text messages and 62% who go online for news and political information.

Distracted Driving =
Being Drunk, or Worse

How unsafe is the distraction of texting or using a cell phone while driving?

• A Car and Driver magazine study compared reaction times of drivers when they texted to their driving after consuming enough alcohol to be legally intoxicated. It found that when texting, the drivers were 3-4 times slower to apply brakes to avoid a collision than when drunk.

• A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that when drivers of heavy trucks texted, their risk of collision was 23 times greater. The study also found car or light vehicle drivers are at 2.8 times greater risk for collision when dialing a cell phone. (=

• A University of Utah study found that drivers using either hand-held or hands-free cell phones are as impaired as drunk drivers. While they were on the phone, three of 40 study participants rear-ended the pace car. (search: cellular drunk)

State and Federal Laws

Despite these findings, New Jersey is the only Delaware Valley state to ban drivers from texting or using a cell phone. Delaware prohibits only bus drivers, learner’s permit and Intermediate license holders from using cell phones or texting.

Pennsylvania permits even the youngest drivers to text or use cell phones. This month the City of Philadelphia begins enforcing an ordinance banning drivers of any vehicle, even bicycles, from using hand-held cell phones.

Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, the ALERT Drivers Act, that would strip 25 percent of federal highway money from any state that doesn’t forbid texting or sending e-mail while driving.

To contact your U.S. or state elected officials about this issue, visit

Teens and pre-teens like texting because, unlike a phone call, it’s quick and can be done surreptitiously while you are doing something else. The code-like messages are fun (especially when they are unintelligible to adults). And micro-blogging sites like Twitter let kids use text messages to keep an entire network informed about the minutiae of their lives.

For all these reasons, texting has become the preferred method of communication for most 13-17 year olds, according to recent surveys (see sidebar). Research has found that a typical teen spends more than three hours a day texting during the school year and sends almost 3,000 messages a month. One third of teens send more than 100 text messages daily.

Parental Control

Many parents are unsure about how to supervise all this activity. The good news is that, unlike chat, which often happens in online “rooms” with strangers, texting is usually a way of keeping up with real life friends. Still, texting occurs on a mobile phone, so kids can do it anywhere at anytime and that makes parents understandably anxious.

Many phone companies are responding to this anxiety with parental controls. Among other things, these controls allow parents to block text messages from certain sources (including spammers), limit phone use to specific hours, prevent purchases and even obtain a detailed log of text messages.

The features vary hugely from carrier to carrier so it’s best to ask before signing up for service. (You can find out what’s available by going to a phone carrier’s website and typing “parental controls” into the search box.)

If a carrier doesn’t provide adequate controls, parents can supplement them with surveillance programs such My Mobile Watch Dog. This service records text messages as well as numbers called and websites visited.

Talking Points

Valuable as these controls may be, most parents simply don’t have the time or patience to do anything more than spot check the text messages their kids are sending. That’s why it’s so important for teens to develop good common sense habits for using text. Here are some things you’ll want to discuss:

Expense. Some families discover their carrier charges for each text message only after getting a nasty phone bill. Although your child can control the number of messages she sends, many plans also charge for messages received. Unlimited text messaging is the obvious answer, but it usually costs more. Consider having your child earn the extra money to pay for the extra service.

Safety. It may seem obvious that texting and driving don’t mix, but one insurance poll found that 67 percent of teens admitted to texting behind the wheel. (See sidebar.) To protect your child, sign a pact stating that neither of you will read or send messages while driving. If a message is urgent, pull over.

Courtesy. Teens like texting because they can do it anywhere, anytime. But there are settings in which texting should be suspended so a young person can devote his entire attention to real people. Most schools now expect students to leave cell phones in their lockers because it’s impossible to teach a class, much less administer a fair exam, when kids are texting under their desks. Parents may want to make similar no-texting rules about family dinners and church services.

Texting Your Teen

Don’t underestimate the power of text as a way to communicate with your child. Obviously, text is ideal for quick logistical messages such as “When is practice over?” but many parents also find these mini-messages can be used to sidestep unnecessary adolescent drama.

Try using text for reminders that might otherwise provoke argument (“Plz take out the trash”), for messages that soothe hurt feelings (“I’m sorry we argued B4 school) or simply for friendly encouragement (“Good luck on your test!”). Text is just another way you can stay in touch with the teens you love.

Discretion. You can tell your child not to text with strangers, but is someone who’s a friend of the guy you met at an away football game a stranger? A better rule is don’t text about sex. Following this rule makes it much less likely that a teen will be groomed or seduced by a predator. And it eliminates the risk that a message your child thought was private will be forwarded to everyone in the 8th grade.

Kindness. Because texting isn’t face-to-face, kids may send and forward messages and photos that they later regret. Remind your child that all communication, regardless of the medium, should be respectful and considerate. Encourage your child to follow the F2F (face-to-face) rule: If you wouldn’t say something to a person’s face, don’t put it in a text message.

Overuse. For some kids, texting can become obsessive, interfering with schoolwork, sleep and other essential activities. Parents should also be aware that excessive texting, especially with one person, may be a sign that a teen is in a controlling or predatory relationship. The quickest way to help a teen get a grip is to “borrow” the phone during homework, at bedtime or before family outings.

Carolyn Jabs is a freelance writer specializing in family technology.

Categories: Tech Talk, Tweens & Teens