Growing Up Online: How Texting Can Strengthen Relationships

cell phone textingBy now, parents of kids with cell phones understand that texting has created new possibilities—and problems. Although research is sparse, a few preliminary studies suggest that, like other forms of communication, texting has the power to bring people closer. Depending on how it is used, it can also create and exacerbate conflict. In one recent, highly publicized study, researchers at Brigham Young University found that couples who argued with text messages felt less happy about their relationships, while couples who used text to coordinate plans and send thinking-of-you messages were convinced texting brought them closer together.
Of course, the study wasn’t able to say whether texting was cause or effect. In all likelihood, the people who felt good about texting also had strong face-to-face relationships. Perhaps the best way to think about texting is as a snack that tides you over until you can get real nourishment. Face-to-face conversation is a full-course meal in which you can communicate not only with words but also with tone of voice, eye contact, and facial expressions.
Teens, in particular, may need help to understand this distinction. A young person who is willing to call fries and a sweet drink “lunch” may also be confused about the role texting plays in rewarding relationships. Here are some suggestions that will help both parents and kids get more satisfying results from the time they put into texting.

Choose your topic. Texting is ideal for rapid, simple communication and what used to be called “small talk.” Use it to coordinate plans or to let someone know you’ll be late. Share quick observations, inside jokes, and how’s-your-day updates. Texting is not well suited to complicated negotiations or anything emotional. If you need to ask for advice, work out a problem, or make an apology, pick up the phone or arrange to see each other.

Be concise and comprehensible. Part of the appeal of texting is that a message can be read in a moment. Keeping communication brief shows respect for the other person who is, after all, being interrupted by a buzzing phone. Acronyms can speed things along—if the other person doesn’t have to puzzle them out. Remind your child that code isn’t a form of communication unless both people know what it means. A quick proofread before pressing send is also a good habit if only because autocorrect is so often clueless about what you were trying to say.

Be positive. Texting is most likely to build relationships when it’s used for funny, encouraging, or friendly messages. Like everyone else, kids will have thoughts that are mean, rude, or snarky. Encourage your child to think before putting those thoughts into a text. The best test: How would you feel if you received this message? If the text is going to a friend, how might it impact the friendship? If the person on the other end isn’t a friend, why are you even sending a text? With a little updating, Grandma’s rule still applies: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t text anything at all.”

Don’t overreact. Because text messages are so short, they are easily misunderstood, so it’s especially important to give other people the benefit of the doubt. If a message seems unclear, unkind, or out of character, don’t shoot back an angry response. Instead, the best reply is probably WNTT—We Need to Talk.

Be sensibly responsive. Because texting can be impulsive, it may lead to impatience or even aggression. Teens, in particular, often expect an instantaneous response, especially from a romantic partner. Parents may need to help their children think about the pace of texting so they can set appropriate boundaries. What is a reasonable response time for messages from parents, other family members, friends, or acquaintances? Answering every text instantly monopolizes your time; waiting too long makes it seem like you are ignoring the other person. Point out that friends are less likely to be upset if they know, in advance, that you’ll be off the grid for a family dinner, homework, or another obligation. You may also want to help your child disable the “message received” feature on the phone. If other people don’t know when a message is read, they may be less adamant about an instant response.
Learn how to stop. Develop guidelines about when texting is appropriate. Many young couples send each other goodnight messages. Because there aren’t generally accepted guidelines about how to “hang up” on a text conversation, these exchanges can go back and forth long after parents assume their teen is asleep. Help your child set limits by, if necessary, putting the phone out of reach after bedtime.

Finally, be sure your child has plenty of opportunities to develop a full repertoire of communication skills including face-to-face conversation. One intriguing study by researchers at the University of Essex found that simply having a phone in the same room made conversations less meaningful, perhaps because participants were thinking about all the other people they could be texting instead of giving full attention to the person in front of them. The authors concluded that “interacting in a neutral environment, without a cell phone nearby, seems to help foster closeness, connectedness, interpersonal trust, and perceptions of empathy—the building blocks of relationships.” The goal for parents, of course, is to raise children who are aware of those building blocks and understand that texting is just one of many ways to construct durable relationships.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer-savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for 10 years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit to read other columns.

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