Ever feel like you’re addicted to your cell phone?
If so, you’re not alone. A recent study shows nearly 2 million Americans find it hard to leave home without these devices; worldwide, the total leaps to more than 1.5 billion.
Quite an acceptance curve for a product that is less than three decades old.
As for me, the newest media ritual occasioned by my own Droid obsession is staying abreast of the NBA playoffs, usually at times when I should be doing something else. But hey, it’s the Thunder, right?
Still, a dinner conversation with your significant other can be undermined pretty badly by a Droid-delivered NBA game.
If you’ve seen the AT&T “romantic dinner” commercial, you know what I’m talking about. Here’s a guy with this attractive woman and he is trying to balance his interest in her and the game on his iPhone. Operating in what he thinks is a stealth mode, he shoots glances to the phone on his lap while holding hands with his date.
A state of angst
While women viewers feel for the date, male viewers identify with the guy. He’s operating in what communication researchers call “a state of cognitive dissonance” or what most of us just call tension. He wants to score, but he also wants the score.
Despite what he thinks, he’s not doing a very good job. His date is onto him, and you get the feeling the question isn’t far off: “Okay, so what’s it gonna be? Me or the game?”
And the answer, of course, is …
The great debate
On a related note, I teach a university course in interpersonal communication, and this commercial always produces a spirited debate in class about a dating scene that is obviously a common one. And, in a larger vein, it goes to the question of how much we want to commit to the virtual world of the pixels as opposed to the attractive person sitting right in front of us.
This blog has addressed this real-world/virtual-world tension before. But before, it was usually the laptop that produced the tension. Now it’s the cell phone. After all, you can’t set up a laptop in front of you when you’re out on a date. Well, you can, but good luck getting a second one.
But who needs a laptop when we have the smart phone? Remember, though: just because that device is smart in what it can do, we still have to be smart in when it should make an appearance.
Texting while what?
I mean, there are times when that preoccupation can be downright dangerous to our health, right? The big one is texting while driving. But how about texting while just plain walking?
Some of you may have seen the video of a woman falling into a mall fountain while texting as she strode along, oblivious to the watery hazard in front of her.
If you think that’s absurd, how about Bonnie Miller, from Benton Harbor, Michigan, who walked right off the pier into Lake Michigan while texting a friend on her cell phone?
According to a recent study in the journal, Gait & Posture, texting while talking has a definite disruptive effect on our gait, setting us up for similarly embarrassing, if not dangerous, moments like these. An article in Men’s Health News discusses it.
In that study, a group of 20-somethings was randomly selected to walk while texting or talking on a cell phone. Researchers discovered that these twin concurrent activities caused the subjects to stride toward a target much more slowly than normal, and that they veered off course by 61 percent. Many actually walked beyond the target without realizing it until it was too late.
Hence, Mrs. Miller, the woman who wound up needing rescue from Lake Michigan. Her 15-year-old son said she had time to utter, “Oh God!” and then he heard the splash.
A watery rescue
She was rescued by her husband, Greg, and she is now speaking out to anyone who will listen about the dangers of texting while trodding.
This crazy kind of activity is how vital we believe our cell phones to be. We will actually risk our lives to update a friend on what we’re doing right now. Like swimming in Lake Michigan.
Dare one say we’re drowning in our addiction?
In our spotlight-crazy age, it’s hard to imagine an individual relatively unknown to that spotlight engaging an audience as much as a celebrity. But that’s what happened Friday night on the Indiana campus of Ball State University.
The relative unknown was Biz Stone, not exactly a household name but who nonetheless is co-founder and creative director of a Web 2.0 enterprise with a name you may have heard of: Twitter.
The celebrity was David Letterman.
An intimate chat
Ball State’s most famous alum and the boyish-looking Stone were on campus to have an intimate conversation (with some 3,500 students, faculty, and staff listening in) about the impact that the three-year-old Twitter and the rest of the social media are having on all of us. The event was part of the Late Night entertainer-funded program called the David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series.
“We had a vision of a flock of birds grouped around a bird in flight,” Stone, 36, said of his start-up venture Twitter. If you’ve wondered why the Twitter logo is a bird, that’s the reason. It’s an image that mirrors the human essence of that interactive service.
Boredom pays off
“I was working on a different startup at Google,” Stone explained. “I was getting a little bored and we took two weeks off to work on something else.”
That was in 2006, and that something-else evolved into Twitter and grew out of Stone’s focus interest in combining texting into an interactive Web service. Stone, together with friends Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams, worked on the prototype for nine months and realized they were having a lot of fun doing it, so they must be on the right track.
Today Twitter has some 160 million users around the world, and its owners turned down a purchase offer of $500 million for it last year. Stone himself was named one of Vanity Fair’s 10 most influential people and one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential.
A site about nothing?
Not bad for the co-founder of a service that many discount as meaningless and who are confounded about its popularity. Even Stone acknowledges that.
“Twitter has been called the Seinfeld of the Internet,” Stone said, referring to the immensely popular TV series of the 90s with little plot structure but great characterizations. “It’s about nothing. Right on!”
About nothing? Really? If so, then how do you explain Stone’s assertion about how helpful it has been to people around the world?
Not about technology
“Twitter is not about a triumph of technology,” Stone said. “It’s a triumph of humanity.” He told Letterman, “In Silicon Valley there is this thinking that technology is a solution to all our problems. But it’s not. It really has to do with what people are going to do with technology.”
Stone added meat to that appetizer by noting that, “People have used Twitter in ways we never anticipated.” For example:
• In the earthquake that rocked Haiti, the only communication many people had with victims in that country, and vice versa, was through Twitter. It helped greatly in getting news in and out of the island nation about who was alive, who was missing, who was dead, and what was needed.
• People from around the world were tweeting messages like, “Keep hope alive,” to the victims in the devastated areas.
• The same has been true with the more recent flooding of Pakistan.
• Last fall, when the world was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Germans established a “Twitter Wall” where people from around the world could post tweets about other walls of oppression that still need to fall. Many Chinese were the first to post such Tweets, before the Chinese government blocked access by their people to that site.
• Some of the 2008 presidential debates incorporated real-time tweets from the public in a crawl along the bottom of the screen, showing what America was thinking about the give-and-take of the candidates.
When Twitter is used to aid disaster victims, it may be showing its most valuable feature, Stone believes.
“We get in touch with our empathy … and think of ourselves as global citizens who care about others,” he said.
Nevertheless, the amount of time people spend on Twitter on a day-to-day basis causes many critics to wonder if all the short blurbs about who is doing what when, is really necessary or just a waste of time.
In his on-stage conversation with Stone, Letterman admitted he does not tweet, nor is he sure he understands why he should.
“I would be tweeting but I feel I don’t have anything to say,” Letterman said. “Moreover, why should I care that Justin Bieber is at the 7-Eleven right now?”
Find your own interest
Stone replied that people don’t need to tweet to get value out of Twitter. He suggested using it to get the information that is relevant to you. If you’re interested in baseball or, more specifically, the Red Sox, dig out those tweets to see what people have to say about your team.
“Twitter is not a social network,” Stone said. “It’s an information network.”
Stone also surprised the audience by noting that 90 percent of all tweets are accessible by the public and that all tweets are archived by the Library of Congress. Other stats he revealed are that 78 percent of all Twitter usage is through Twitter.com, while the other 22 percent come through mobile phone usage. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered why Twitter messages are kept to 140 characters, it is to keep it within the 160-character maximum length of cell phone text messages, allowing for the adding of a username.
Although Letterman couldn’t resist being Dave – he once noted he was wearing socks he had borrowed from the husband of BSU President Jo Ann Gora and took them off on-stage at the end of the program – he did turn serious in displaying his interest over Twitter.
Damage to language?
One of his more serious questions to Stone was asking whether such heavy usage of Twitter would affect people’s use of the English language and subtract for their ability to write well.
Stone responded, “When you’re given less to work with, you often have to be more creative.” He noted that Twitter forces users to come to the point and be concise in their writing. He also noted that many people provide links in their tweets to longer-form messages.
No boredom here
As interesting as the on-stage conversation was, however, it was just as fascinating to watch how the audience of young people responded. It is rare that a speaker event on campus doesn’t result in scattered groups of students talking among themselves and seeing several of them get bored and leave before the end.
But few did that on Friday night, and the silence during the program and standing ovation welcoming Stone and Letterman to the stage showed the degree of interest college students have in the social media phenomenon.
A couple years ago, an honor student at a conservative private college in Kentucky decided to do what a growing number of students are doing these days: use his Facebook account to come out of the closet and tell others he is gay.
For his openness, he was expelled from this college which had a policy of not accepting gay students.
At another university, a sophomore posted pictures of himself getting plastered at a weekend party. That would have been okay had it not been for the fact he was under the legal drinking age in Ohio and the school did not allow students to hold leadership positions on campus if they were drinking illegally.
He never became editor.
These are just two of many examples of young people who have chosen to live their lives out loud. Throwing caution to the wind, the typical 20-something who has grown up in the age of chatrooms and interactive media has embraced social media sites like Facebook to disclose just about everything they think is either shocking, amusing, or titillating about himself or herself.
And this phenomenon starts early, as the tragic cases of teen suicide over the practice of “sexting” have shown the past couple of years.
I began discovering this lack of concern about privacy a few years ago and have been asking my own college students about it ever since. Originally I asked it in the context of a class I teach on communication ethics. We deal with a section on individual privacy vs. government surveillance, which is a topic that I find somewhat scary because I’ve always wondered how widespread the misuse of government surveillance might be on Americans.
Too many blank stares
Citing some examples of such abuse, I ask my students if they aren’t a bit concerned, too. In return, I usually get silence and some blank stares. So I’m thinking that these are the same students who are willingly giving up their own privacy by self-disclosing about themselves to virtual strangers online, so why should they feel concerned about someone else invading their privacy? And apparently that is true. They aren’t.
So then I ask them if they aren’t concerned about disclosing too much information about themselves in Facebook. Again, a lot of blank stares and silence. I infer from this reaction that either they haven’t ever thought about this as a problem, or they think I’m out of a prehistoric generation that keeps too many secrets about themselves.
A third possibility is that they trust the privacy filters on Facebook as much as they seem to trust faceless government officials who controls the means to surveillance.
Who’s to blame
When I tell them about what happened to the Kentucky student or the kid at the Ohio university, they seem shocked. They usually get on the case of the administrations at these two schools, debating their policies they think got the students into trouble. I remind them, however, it was the students, who knew these policies, who got themselves into trouble by living their lives out loud.
Because of these encounters with my own students, I was surprised to see a story in the New York Times recently that revealed the results of a survey done by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley showing this thinking may be shifting among young people.
The study, funded by the Pew Internet Project, found that over half of these young adults surveyed are now more worried about their own privacy they were in 2005. That figures is about equal of the number of people their parents’ age or older who are concerned about their privacy.
Just as surprising is people in their 20s are taking more control over their “digital reputations” than are their older counterparts. They delete threatening posts and are starting to limit information about themselves. This finding could, however, be the result of younger people knowing how to engage those digital filters more than older adults who spend less time with the social media.
Possibly because many Facebook users are finding the built-in filters aren’t foolproof, many young people are all of a sudden worried about those party pix or those tell-all announcements of their sexual orientation.
Young people are also hearing, from older people like me, about how college administrators and employers are tracking Facebook and MySpace to find out more information about individuals applying for leadership posts in college or jobs beyond graduation. So that’s starting to give them pause.
Learning to distrust filters
The Times article, written by Laura M. Holson, talks about Sam Jackson, a junior at Yale who began a blog when he was 15 and who has already interned at Google. Jackson said he had learned not to trust any social network to keep his information private.
“If I go back and look, there are things four years ago I would not say today,” he told the Times. “I am much more self-censoring. I’ll try to be honest and forthright, but I am conscious now who I am talking to.”
Says Holson, “He has learned to live out loud mostly by trial and error and has come up with his own theory: concentric layers of sharing. His Facebook account, which he has had since 2005, is strictly personal. “
“I don’t want people to know what my movie rentals are,” Jackson said. “If I am sharing something, I want to know what’s being shared with others.”
So there you are, sitting alone in the late-night hours of your home where the silence may be deafening if you’re living alone or your spouse has long since gone to bed.
It’s been awhile since you’ve heard from anyone via e-mail or phone call, and the thought occurs to you: Does anyone still know I exist?
- Turn on the radio, the thing that’s been collecting dust ever since the computer came to live with you, and call in to a late-night talk show. At least that guy/woman may listen to you, and you can have at least the appearance of interacting with another human being.
- Log on to your computer and head to Facebook (everyone has at least a few friends active, even though most of the chatter is people talking about themselves), or head to a chatroom. Maybe even give the new and daring Chatroulette a try. Randomness dictates you will find chat partners there.
- You can go wake up your spouse, if you have one, or your kid, if you have one, and demand they engage you in conversation over hot chocolate. Good luck with that.
As an absolute last resort, you can call the person who absolutely has to talk with you, and that would be your mother. When a woman gives birth to a new kid, there’s a contract that comes attached like a toe tag to the baby: You must love this person at all times, and listen when it calls you out of loneliness at 3 a.m.
And that shows … what?
But what does it prove that your mom loves you? Is that a big surprise?
So most of us choose Option No. 2 these days because of its ease and because there is a ready supply of people out there like us doing the same thing, even at 3 a.m. All time zones are not created equal, especially when you toss in the hundreds of millions who live beyond American borders. And, you fantasize, there’s always that lonely girl or guy over in Uzbekistan who may be Webbing tonight.
The question is this: How many of us are taking that practice and moving it into daytime hours and prime-time evening hours as well?
How many of us are opting out of interacting with real flesh-and-blood people – who can sometimes be prickly and tough to interact with – and choosing instead to take ourselves into the world of the virtual unknown?
An isolating experience?
Conventional wisdom suggests that the Internet is, in fact, causing such isolation and withdrawal. There are also some studies that have suggested this, but then they have been contradicted by other studies.
Isn’t research great?
For example, a CNN.com health report from a decade ago noted, “A growing body of research suggests that excessive Internet use carries some of the same risks as gambling: It can lead to social isolation, depression and failure at work or school.”
The article, by Barbara Jamison of WebMD, continues, “Some people – particularly those who were isolated to begin with – have forged healthy friendships by meeting kindred souls online. But using the Internet too much can hurt face-to-face relationships. And psychologists say an increasing number of people are using the Internet so obsessively that they are ruining their marriages and careers.”
A kind of addiction
The data comes from a 1999 survey of 1,700 Internet users which was presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association. Six percent of those surveyed met the criteria for addiction, Jamison said. “They felt a building tension before the act, a rush of relief afterwards, and distorting of mood and bingeing.”
The heavy use of the Web has even spawned a cottage industry within psychology: the Internet addiction specialist, a therapist who often prescribes antidepressant medication and putting your computer out on the curb for the trash haulers to pick up.
More recently, however, a 2009 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported somewhat the opposite of the 1999 survey, although it included mobile phone use as well as Internet use. The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication.
“People who use modern information and communication technologies have larger and more diverse social networks, according to new national survey findings,” the Pew press release states. “These new findings challenge fears that use of new technologies has contributed to a long-term increase in social isolation in the United States.”
Among this study’s findings:
- On average, the size of people’s discussion networks is 12 percent larger among mobile phone users, 9 percent larger for those who share photos online, and 9 percent bigger for those who use instant messaging.
- The diversity of people’s core networks – their closest and most significant confidants – tends to be 25 percent larger for mobile phone users, 15 percent larger for basic Internet users, and even larger for frequent Internet users, those who use instant messaging, and those who share digital photos online.
- Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported and social isolation has hardly changed since 1985. Only 6 percent of the adult population has no one with whom they can discuss important matters or who they consider to be “especially significant” in their life.
Two different studies, a decade apart, reporting two different sets of results. Don’t be surprised if the study done in 2019 reverses the data from the 2009 survey.
Ultimately, each of us has to decide for ourselves how much to immerse ourselves in virtual relationships on the Web as opposed to real ones in-person. Communication being what it is, we have fewer chances to detect all-important nonverbal cues from chatrooms and cell phones than from sitting down and chatting with a friend face to face.
It’s called interpersonal communication, and it can’t be done on Facebook.
1. You must be 16 or older.
2. Please stay clothed.
3. Please click “Report” if you don’t like what you see.
The game: Chatroulette.
This latest (at least as of this week) addition to the social networking world is a website that pairs random strangers for webcam-based conversations around the country or around the world. Users can communicate with each other via text, video and or audio, and the conversations last until they decide to move on to someone else who looks interesting on the site.
There is a definite roulette-like aspect to using Chatroulette, because anyone who signs on may be “nexted” which means he or she is just the next one up when another user leaves one chat and clicks “next” to go to whoever’s profile shows up right after that one.
From zero to 60
I first came in contact with Chatroulette (www.chatroulette.com) a couple weeks ago while watching ABC News do a piece on it. Like other new Web 2.0 innovations, it has caught the media’s attention. But seldom do such inventions leap in marketing popularity from zero to 60 in four months time. That is exactly what Chatroulette has done, however.
The service was launched last November by a 17-year-old Russian high school student in Moscow named Andrey Temovskiy. You read that right: 17. Within a week there were about 500 users; a month later there were 50,000; this month there are 1.5 million around the world, with about a third of them in the U.S. alone.
The thought behind the service wasn’t rocket science. Ternovskiy says he developed the idea after having video chats with friends over the internet video phone service, Skype (www.skype.com).
An image sticks
And the name? It came from the 1978 Robert DiNiro and Chris Walken film, The Deer Hunter. Remember the scene when DiNiro, Walken, and John Savage are taken prisoner in Vietnam and forced by their captors to play Russian roulette? That image suck in Ternovskiy’s mind and became the name for his new service.
Techically, the site uses Adobe Flash and webcams on users’ computers to enable video exchange. Flash can handle peer-to-peer communication by using RTMFP that lets nearly all audio and video streams to move directly between individual computers of users without using server bandwidth.
We’ve all heard stories about the guy who produces the next big thing right out of his bedroom, and this is one of those stories. This young Russian still works out of the bedroom he grew up in, and is assisted by four programmers who work out of remote locations and who probably aren’t much older than him.
Working from home
One of the great things about the Internet is that many new concepts begin with very limited funds. Again, Chatroulette is one of those stories. Ternovskiy funded his site with a $10,000 loan from Mom and Dad, which he has since paid back. He makes money from advertising links set up with an online dating site called True, and who know where all this will go.
I dialed up the site last night and was first struck by the fact there is no traditional home page, but just a page with a short welcome, the three above rules, and a quick set of instructions. Along the top are three tabs labeled “New game,” “Report,” and Pause.” On the left side are two windows labeled “Partner,” and “You.” The idea is extremely simple: you must first engage your webcam, then you follow a couple quick instructions, click “New Game,” and you go online and are in line to be “nexted” by a new chat partner who could be living across the street or around the world.
If things get dicey, you can click “Report,” which supposedly sends up a red flag to
programmers. Apparently, after three such flags are hoisted for the same “chat partner,” that user is banned for 10 minutes, although verification for that claim is hard to find. The Chatroulette homepage carries no information about the site at all beyond the information I just listed.
Take it slow
Like all internet sites, this one should be used with caution, and self-disclosure should be kept to a minimum because — fantasies aside — you have absolutely no idea if the face you are talking to belongs to a safe or truthful person.
One of the lures of Internet chatrooms and dating sites is that they can offer instant relationships, maybe with the person of your dreams. The reality is that relationships aren’t that easy, and it takes time to get to know each other and see how genuine each of you really is.
Given the high stakes of self-disclosure, it’s no time to gamble away your privacy in the land of the virtual unknown.
In the last post we talked about some tragedies resulting from texting, a habit that young people have especially embraced. As promised, however, this time we’ll look at the more innocent aspects of this phenomenon.
But first, I can’t help but feel that the late media seer Marshall McLuhan might well be surprised – if not shocked – to see that this recent iteration of the digital age has actually brought young people back to the written word.
And he would be downright speechless over the fact that many prefer it over audio-visual communication. For it was McLuhan who, among other things, predicted that what he called “the electronic age” (television then) was taking us back to the pre-literate tribal era of oral — and aural – communication.
Not so, according to nearly all my college students here at California’s Azusa Pacific University. This week I opened up a lively discussion in two of my classes about preferences of texting vs. calling.
The hands-down winner among these young 20-somethings? Texting.
When I asked how many students send and receive at least 20 texts a day, the room broke out in laughter. “Are you serious, Dr. Willis?” one student asked. “How about 100 to 200 a day?”
I thought she was kidding until others joined in agreement. Turns out the average fell between 100 and 150 texts sent and received in a given day.
And I’m still reeling from that, because I haven’t even made it close to the 20 mark myself.
The most common answers to the question, “Why is texting so popular?” were that texting is quicker and more convenient.
More convenient to type out a 20-word message than to punch in a seven-digit phone number? Yes, they said, especially if you are doing something else at the time … like sitting in class, trying to look like you’re attuned to what your prof is saying. Blackberries and I-phones fit snugly into one’s lap, after all.
One student said her mom used to try to call her several times during the day, and that often those calls would come while she was in class. So the student negotiated a deal with her mom to text her instead.
One senior told me that she will answer texts quicker than she will answer phone messages. During our discussion away from class, her phone did ring, and she ignored it. “See?” she said. “If that had been a text, I might have answered it right away.”
This same student then said that texting has become the preferred way for a young person to show interest in someone he or she has just met.
“It’s a lot less threatening than risking face-to-face rejection,” she said. “And,” she added, “how long it takes for the other person to respond to that text is very important. If it takes more than an hour or two, forget it. He’s just not that into you.”
Texting = Flirting?
In fact, she said many young people have come to equate the term texting, as in “John is texting Jennifer,” to mean John and Jennifer have romantic interests in each other, or at least that they are flirting. On the other hand, to say John has texted Jennifer refers more to a simple exchange of information.
Another student agreed that texting is used as a preferred way of meeting people, estimating that, “Ninety percent of all new relationships begin with texting.”
Have times changed since I was 22 or what?
One sophomore said he texts some people “who I would just find it weird to talk to.” Weird? “Yeah, you know. Some people you just have a hard time talking to. But texting them is different and it often works when talking doesn’t. It’s just not as weird.”
What we’re talking about here is the chilling effect that non-verbal cues can have on a communication exchange. In the world of texting, e-mails, and chat rooms, no such non-verbal cues need exist.
That’s fine, unless you believe you can really know another person without experiencing their non-verbal language. Because you can’t. Most of us care more about how someone says something than what they actually say. That goes for how they laugh (and how often), too.
Still, the first time I realized students come alive more in text is when I taught my first class online, some 12 years ago. After worrying about how a text-based system of real-time communication would work in a virtual classroom, I was pleased to find that online students open up much more than when they are face to face.
I remember one particular moment when a colleague passed by my open doorway and did a double-take when he heard me laughing out loud at the computer screen. The textual exchange had reached the point of hilarity, and I couldn’t contain myself. From that moment on, my fears about online teaching disappeared.
One of my students at Azusa Pacific informed me yesterday that a word now actually exists for the person who can open up online, but has trouble doing it in person. The word is “textrovert,” or that person who is an introvert in the flesh but an extrovert in texting.
It’s a great word and an accurate one. I have taken the same students who sat speechless in a regular classroom, put then in an online room and watched them explode into textual commentary on what I was saying.
Another student posited that texting allows us to focus more on ideas themselves and less on the person we’re talking to. For certain kinds of communication, that’s not bad.
Oops … Make that “s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g”
One problem with texting, opined another student, is bad spelling. And, she said, it is often not seen as a problem by the person guilty of it. “They think they’re getting their message across, but what they don’t realize is others may be making fun of what a bad speller they are,” she said.
And another problem? The occasional student who uses texting language in a college paper. It is not that uncommon to find an occasional “cuz,” “omg,” or other textual shortcut show up in a term paper. Results are predictable and are usually contained within the single letters of D or F.
One other surprising finding from my students: they aren’t that much into tweeting. Twitter seems to have captured only about 10-15 percent of them. Texting works just fine for short-burst messages of 20 or so words, while Facebook or e-mails take over nicely for longer messages.
Is it a different world out there? You bet. But hey, for me and a lot of other college profs like me, it’s just great to see kids falling in love with the written language again.
Sorry McLuhan. You were right about so many other things.
The use of new communication technology that seems to puzzle so many people is the use of cell phones for texting. At the same time it is puzzling some, however, it has become an integral part of daily life for many others.
How widespread is it? Statistics show that nearly 70 percent of all Americans send at least one text a day. Nearly every teen who has a cell phone sends several texts a day.
Like all applications of the new media, texting is only as good or as bad as who is texting, why, and — especially for this application — when.
In many cases, when time is at a premium, people prefer to text short bursts than phone in a message. And texting is obviously a welcome phone format for voice-impaired users.
Other times, though, texting is not so great.
For example, just this week regulators have determined a text message probably cost 25 people their lives in a tragic accident in California.
That happened on Sept. 12, 2008, when a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train carrying 350 people collided head-on with a Union Pacific Freight train at rush hour in the L.A. suburb of Chatsworth. Both trains were traveling aboout 40 mph on impact, twenty-five people were killed and more than 100 were injured.
An official 16-month probe of the cause of the accident pointed to the commuter train engineer’s text-messaging as the primary cause, as noted by the Associated Press this week. That engineer was one of those killed in the crash.
“Tragically, an instant message turned an ordinary commute into a catastrophe,” the AP was told by Deborah Hersman, chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board.
In short, according to the NTSB, the commuter train engineer was texting and missed a red signal, sending his train into the nose of the freight train.
As a result of the accident, regulators have banned cell phone use by in-service train engineers.
A more widespread misuse of texting, though, occurs among motorists who text while they drive. Statistics show as many as 46 percent of those drivers who text are teenagers, who of course are inexperienced drivers in the first place. Not surprisingly, many accidents have resulted from this hazardous multi-tasking.
From Texting to Sexting
Another tragic misuse of texting is one many parents fear as much, if not more.
It is the practice known as “sexting” when teens — and even pre-teens — text sexually explicit messages and photos or their nude or partially nude bodies to a boyfriend or girlfriend, only to have those photos redistributed to a much wider array of teens. Sometimes it’s done by the posting of those embarrasing photos on sites such as Facebook.
The humiliation resulting from these redistributions has caused at least two young girls to commit suicide over the past 12 months. Last September, 13-year-old Hope Witsell of the Cincinnatti area hanged herself in her bedroom after a topless photo she sent to a boy wound up getting much wider circulation at her school and another high school.
Last March, 18-year-old Jesse Logan of Hillsborough, Fla., killed herself when a nearly identical incident occurred. The only difference was that the boy who recirculated her photo was her ex-boyfriend, while Witsell sent her photo to a boy to get him interested in her. A third party, using the boy’s phone, saw the photo and sent it on to others.
In both cases, bullying and biting sarcasm from others at school proved too much for each girl, and they chose to end their lives rather than continue to bear the brunt of others’ scorn.
Some Teens Arrested
Something some teens don’t realize is that sexting is a felony in several states. Last week, three teenage girls and three teenage boys — all between the ages of 14-17, were charged in Pennsylvania with child pornography for the sending and receipt of sexual messages and photos. Similar charges are pending for other teens in Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
And the practice is not confined to just a few teens, either. The National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has reported that 20 percent of all teens have admitted to engaging in sexting. Other estimates push that to as high as 39 percent.
Next Up: A Lighter Look
Next time we’ll take a lighter look at how college students view texting , why they spend so much time with it, and at the new provocative meaning of that term has among so many young people.