When Grace Pastoor’s parents opened their April cell phone bill, they were shocked. The 80-page bill chronicled their 16-year-old daughter’s 34,000 text messages. They took her phone away because they thought her texting habit resembled an addiction.
Her habit got worse after a traumatic event, she said. She had turned off her phone during a theater performance. When she switched her phone on again, she had five texts waiting for her. It was her boyfriend texting her that he had been mugged. “I blamed myself,” she said.
If she hadn’t turned her phone off, she felt like she could have somehow protected him.
ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.
Grace’s grades dropped to Cs and Ds. “I wouldn’t pay attention in class or clean my room,” Grace said. “All I would do is text and text and text.”
While Grace’s texting habit may seem out of the ordinary, teen text messaging has increased dramatically. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project “Teens and Mobile Phones” study, the number of teen texters has increased more than 20 percentage points – from 51 percent in 2006 to 72 percent in 2009.
Amanda Lenhart, Pew Research Center Senior Research Specialist and co-author of the study, said the increase in teen text messaging can be attributed to unlimited text plans and peer-to-peer habits. For instance, someone in the teenager’s network gets unlimited texting and “Suddenly you have to switch over to unlimited texting,” Lenhart said. “It kind of ripples out.”
According to the study, 75 percent of all teenage cell phone owners have unlimited text plans.
Nardos Adinew, 16, of Minneapolis, is on her family’s plan and has unlimited texting. She sends 8,000 texts per month. “[At first] not a lot of my friends had texting. So I had to talk on the phone,” she said. Then “most of the people I knew started texting.”
According to the study, texting is the preferred channel of basic communication among teens and their friends. Joseph Konstan, a professor who specializes in human-computer interaction in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Minnesota said, “I suspect there are kids who would be perfectly happy without voice and just text.”
Abdul Nakumbe, of Columbia Heights, sends about 5,000 texts a month. “Texting is the new way to communicate,” the 16-year-old said.
Fadumo Jama, 17, sends about 10,000 texts. “It’s easier. You don’t have to talk to one person all day long. You can have more than one conversation with a lot of people at the same time,” the Minneapolis teen said.
Teens text their friends about a variety of topics including “Complaining about another night on the couch with their family,” Konstan said. “There are a lot of situations when you don’t want to speak out loud. [Texting provides] direct access to your friends without it being mediated by parents.”
Konstan doesn’t understand entirely why the phenomenon is pervasive. “What I see is an immense amount of low grade conversation,” Dr. Konstan said. “It worries me a lot when someone texts 800 times a day … how do they focus on school?”
Some teens disagree. “If I have something to do – I do it. It doesn’t control me, I control it,” Nardos said. “It’s not like that’s my oxygen in [my phone].”
According to the “Teens and Mobile Phones” study, whether or not a teen pays for their service matters. Teens who pay for their own service usually have independent use of their phone and unlimited data plans. If parents pay for the service, they are more likely to supervise their teenager’s cell phone usage.
Nardos said if she were the one paying for her phone she wouldn’t be texting as much as she does. “It’s my money,” she said.
On the other hand, some teens welcome the freedom to text as they wish. “If I was paying the bill, I would be texting even more,” Grace said. “I wouldn’t have to worry about making my parents mad.”
Grace has her phone back and her grades have improved. She used to send 1,000 texts a day and a total of 34,000 a month. “I’ve cut back to around 500 texts a day. I know it sounds like a lot for most people, but it’s only half the amount as before, and a huge cut back for me,” she said.