Teens hurt themselves by relentless texting, experts have warned. Spurred by the unlimited texting plans offered by carriers like AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless, American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages per month in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the Nielsen Company almost 80 messages a day, more than double the average of a year earlier.
The phenomenon is beginning to worry physicians and psychologists, who say it is leading to anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation.
Dr. Martin Joffe, a pediatrician in Greenbrae, Calif., recently surveyed students at two local high schools and said he found that many were routinely sending hundreds of texts every day.
"That's one every few minutes," he said. "Then you hear that these kids are responding to texts late at night. That's going to cause sleep issues in an age group that's already plagued with sleep issues."
Michael Hausauer, a psychotherapist in Oakland, Calif., said teenagers had a "terrific interest in knowing what's going on in the lives of their peers, coupled with a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop." For that reason, he said, the rapid rise in texting has potential for great benefit and great harm.
"Texting can be an enormous tool," he said. "It offers companionship and the promise of connectedness. At the same time, texting can make a youngster feel frightened and overly exposed."
There's another angle too. Those seeking advice constantly, even on trivial issues like the colour of the shoes to be bought, could end up becoming extremely dependent on their parents, not a very welcome trait in a highly individualistic country like the US.
Texting is of course taking a toll on teenagers' thumbs. Annie Wagner, 15, a ninth-grade honor student in Bethesda, Maryland, used to text on her tiny LG phone as fast as she typed on a regular keyboard. A few months ago, she noticed a painful cramping in her thumbs. (Lately, she has been using the iPhone she got for her 15th birthday, and she says texting is slower and less painful.)
Peter W. Johnson, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington, said it was too early to tell whether this kind of stress is damaging. But he added,
"Based on our experiences with computer users, we know intensive repetitive use of the upper extremities can lead to musculoskeletal disorders, so we have some reason to be concerned that too much texting could lead to temporary or permanent damage to the thumbs."
Annie said that although her school, like most, forbids cellphone use in class, with the LG phone she could text by putting it under her coat or desk.
Her classmate Ari Kapner said, "You pretend you're getting something out of your backpack."
Parents also tend to be far less aware of texting than of, say, video game playing or general computer use, and the unlimited plans often mean that parents stop paying attention to billing details, it is pointed out.
Still, some are starting to sit up and take notice. Greg Hardesty, a reporter in Lake Forest, California, said that late last year his 13-year-old daughter, Reina, racked up 14,528 texts in one month. She would keep the phone on after going to bed, switching it to vibrate and waiting for it to light up and signal an incoming message.
Mr. Hardesty wrote a column about Reina's texting in his newspaper, The Orange County Register, and in the flurry of attention that followed, her volume soared to about 24,000 messages. Finally, when her grades fell precipitously, her parents confiscated the phone.
Reina's grades have since improved, and the phone is back in her hands, but her text messages are limited to 5,000 per month and none between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weekdays.
There could be an element of hypocrisy in all this, Katie Hafner writes in New York Times, as anyway parents themselves are hooked on to their Blackberrys or cellphones endlessly, leaving them less time for their children.
But slowly awareness of the damage inherent in the situation is dawning on all stakeholders, it is felt.