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Does hyper-texting lead to stress and depression? Or vice versa?

April 26, 2011, 11:35 AM

We know that teens text a LOT: the average teenager sends 3,339 texts a month. Many adults are worried about the potential negative impacts upon youth of all of this texting. Common concerns cited include lack of face-to-face interpersonal skills, repetitive stress injuries, and an inability to focus.

Like others, I think the texting phenomenon is worth paying attention to and studying. But I’m not sure this recent article has it quite right. Here’s an excerpt:

Dr. Scott Frank, director of the Master of Public Health Program at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, has seen the effects of all that late-night texting. In a 2009 study, he found that “hyper-texting’’ teens - those who texted 120 times or more on an average school day - were more than 60 percent more likely to sleep less than seven hours per night and to doze off in class than those who were not hyper-texters.

“These teens were also more than 60 percent more likely to miss more school because of illness and to have poor academic performance,’’ he wrote in an e-mail. “Teens were also 25 percent more likely to report high levels of stress and 40 percent more likely to have symptoms of depression.’’

The way the article reads, the teens’ stress and depression and illness-related truancy and poor academic performance all seem to stem from the act of ‘hyper-texting.’ But this may be a classic case of correlation versus causation. In other words, perhaps teens that already are stressed, depressed, truant, and/or doing poorly in school are turning to their phones and their friends for validation and support more often than other teens do. As the article itself notes:

But many teens said feeling popular and connected to friends is more important than a good night’s rest.

“When I’m texting someone I don’t feel alone,’’ said A.J. Shaughnessy, a ninth-grader at Boston College High School. “When you don’t have your phone, you feel incomplete.’’

Michael Joyce, 16, a sophomore at the school, said the sound of his phone vibrating on his night table makes him happy. “Oh, good,’’ he thinks as he’s awakened, “someone’s texting me. Maybe someone needs me.’’

Sometimes teens answer late-night calls and messages less out of excitement than fear. In focus groups convened by the Pew Research Center, some teens related stories of friends or acquaintances who became angry or insulted when text messages or phone calls weren’t immediately returned. “As a result, many teens we heard from said they feel obligated to return texts and calls as quickly as possible, to avoid such tensions and misunderstandings,’’ the report said.

It’s hard for me to read that second excerpt and not believe that the underlying root problems are something other (and bigger) than hypertexting.

I think we have to be careful about what we infer and what causal directions we imply. Texting isn’t going away anytime soon. Whatever negative consequences accompany frequent texting, it’s far better for us to be accurately informed than it is to draw mistaken conclusions.

Image credit: The Stig texting IMG_0609


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