Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

A group of teens sits at the same table at school. Two are texting each other. "If it's teenage girls, they're probably talking about someone who's at the table and can't talk about it in front of their face," said Rachael Murphy, a senior at Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School.

Texting is second nature to teenagers and often confusing to adults. "What's socially unacceptable to adults is not to adolescents," Powell-area psychologist Dr. Marty Traver said. While 71 percent of teens ages 12 to 17

own cell phones, 56 percent send text messages and 36 percent text daily, according to Aaron Smith, a research specialist for the Pew Internet Project. "The percentages increase with the age of the teens," Smith said.

"When you look at how teens talk to each other, text messaging is No. 2, just behind talking to friends in person."

Text messaging has become immensely popular. In 2000, wireless users sent 12 million text messages a month, according to CTIA -- The Wireless Association, an industry group. Last year, 75 billion messages went out

each month, the association said.

Fake relationships

Are the youth of today losing face-to-face interaction skills to technological communication? Traver sees a couple of pitfalls, but isn't overly concerned. "It's just the way kids communicate today," she said. "If kids get good

grades and have friends, they're probably okay. "But parents should be vigilant and keep communication open. Texting is just a tool, and like any tool, it can be misused."

Texting and other electronic communication can create "fake relationships," she said. "They don't get the social interaction a teenager needs to grow," Traver said. "They have the illusion they're in a romance, but they

don't have to deal with the actual person. "Real-life relationships are messier," she said. "They require negotiations. You don't just shut off the texting device."

Parents need to moderate and provide structure for their children's texting, she said, noting many devices help control use, blocking messages during school hours, for example.

Missing context

Texting can help people who might not be comfortable communicating in a group, said Dr. Craig Travis, director of behavioral science at St. Ann's Family Medicine Residency in Westerville. "The concern that I have is sort

of this conditioned idea that because it's technology, it must be good," Travis said. "What I see is a boundary: If it's interrupting other daily functioning, then it's a problem. If you're so busy texting that you're never in the

moment, you're always somewhere else, that has the potential for interfering with interpersonal relationships."

Tone of voice, facial expressions and body language are all lost in a text message, Travis said. "(Texters) try to put those little emoticons in there, but you miss a lot."

Murphy, the Fort Hayes student, describes herself as a moderate text messager. "My phone has been taken away twice for too much texting," she said. "I'm not very slick about it. I probably get about 50 in a day," she

said. "I have friends who get 250 in a day. It's like a constant need to always be connected to someone. It's very weird."

Her plan costs $15 for 1,500 text messages a month, Murphy said, and she never sends and receives more than 800. Most of her friends have $20 unlimited plans, she said.

There is texting at school, Murphy said. Teachers take students' cell phones only in extreme cases, Murphy said, opting to control student texters with a pointed look. Some classes demand a student's full attention,

though, she said. "I don't text in calculus."

A hard line

Allan Joseph, a senior at St. Charles Preparatory School, said students there face a hard line on texting: five detentions for the first offense; suspension for the second; and expulsion for a third. "Still, kids do it a lot," he

said. "People who get caught don't risk doing it again."

One 14-year-old girl in Wauwatosa, Wisc., did risk texting in class despite her teacher's admonishments and was arrested for disorderly conduct earlier this month and suspended for a week.

Joseph said he's not a constant texter, "but I do text, probably 100 a day, not as much as my friends do." Topics include schoolwork and "practical stuff," he said, "as much as my parents don't want to believe that."

Instead of fighting text messages, educators and others can tap into them as a tool, said Ed O'Reilly, Grandview Heights schools superintendent. "Some of our coaches use it to let kids know when buses are leaving (for

sporting events)," he said. "There's a greater chance of students getting it than if it's on the announcements."

O'Reilly said his sons' responsiveness to texts is telling. "They will answer texts immediately," he said. "If I call and leave a message, they may call back. But if my wife and I text, we'll get an instant response. It's their

preferred mode of communicating."

The texting trend is part of today's teens' more impromptu approach to life, O'Reilly said. "They don't plan their events. Right before lunch they'll say, 'What are we doing (for lunch) today?' Then they'll text each other."

Defending English

Despite fears that text messaging will remove vowels from the language and turn teens into semi-literates, Bill Kist, a Kent State University associate professor of English, said texting is not destroying the language. Quite

the opposite, he said, it's just part of its evolution. "These new media give us an opportunity we've never had before to help kids see how language evolves and how language is used differently in different venues and for

different purposes," Kist said.

Today's English teacher should be able to talk to students about the differences between writing texts, e-mails, formal papers for a class, a cover letter for a job and other purposes.

Joseph, at St. Charles, said he doesn't think texting has hurt his writing. "In my writing, in conversations, I've never had anything that resembles texting," he said. "My texting resembles the way I write."

Fort Hayes student Murphy said texting makes multi-tasking easier. "My friends don't like to talk on the phone," she said. "They can text and do other things. It's easier than talking."

On the other hand, texting creates a superficial connection, Travis said. Research supports that when people multi-task while studying, they can't think deeply or absorb what they are supposed be learning, he said.

"Everything is very surfacey," Travis said, "because they do it real quick."

Texting tips

A little common sense can help keep kids out of trouble when they're using text messaging services or surfing the Web from a cell phone:

  • Parental controls and filters can stop harmful content when kids surf the Web on a wireless phone and can limit text messaging to the times and people parents choose.
  • Teach your kids not to answer calls or respond to text messages from unfamiliar numbers. If family members call from an unrecognized number, they can always leave a voicemail message.
  • Make sure your children know not to respond to aggressive or bullying messages. Reacting usually only encourages bullies.
  • Tell your kids to talk to you if they receive a message that makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, even if it comes from someone they know.
  • Remind your kids that what they send can be forwarded to anyone and doesn't go away just because they delete it.
  • Don't send aggressive or threatening text messages. If you wouldn't say it to someone in person, don't say it online.
  • Don't take or send inappropriate pictures with your camera phone. You never know who will wind up seeing them. In extreme cases, teens have faced criminal charges for sending graphic images.
  • Never give out personal information such as a credit card number, phone number or e-mail address to someone you don't know.