Teen Texting: Deciphering the Social Cues

The social rules for text conversation are anything but cut and dry. At the least, some smart teen should write a book of etiquette, so everyone can agree what the response means.
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My kids taught me to text. They all have cellphones that they rarely answer except if I am calling, the condition that I set for paying for all their texting. But if I want an immediate response, I know better. I text. Texting is actually quite convenient for taking care of the mundane details that can often jam up the works between all the kids and their various schedules. Increasingly I hear about their sorrows and joys over text too, although usually those exchanges put me into autodial on the phone. Come to think of it, most of the "love u's" come through text now too.

Our basic need to connect and communicate is in the process of another significant face lift. The endless hours that I stretched the cord from the kitchen wall around the dining room table for some privacy and spoke endlessly to a couple of my closest friends is folklore now. Most people don't even have phones in their kitchens. We still do, just for old time's sake, but my kids rarely pick it up anyway. They know that no one would call them at that number. They have their own.

The shift to personal phones was just the beginning of cellphone technology, although I am still partial to real voice exchanges. In my memory and my mind, hearing a voice, even when I am far away, connects me to that person and gives me a chance to hear an inflection. I can hear my children's mood on the phone -- harder to decipher in a text. Emoticon choices are only a small piece of the communication I have learned; the subtlety of text relationships is being invented among our youth and there is some reasons for concern.

A recent Pew Research Center report found that half of American teenagers ages 12 to 17 send 50 or more texts a day; a third send over 100 a day. Two-thirds of the teens said they are more likely to text a friend than call and more concerning still is that less than a third reported talking to their friends face to face. Not surprisingly, another recent study showed that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend 7.5 hours a day using electronic devices.

Is all this techno time connecting with friends really a substitute for the complexity of what happens in human relationships, when people are together without their phones?

This is an ongoing discussion at my house, at times like when I walk up into the family room where the sleepover boys are all texting other people side by side. It becomes animated and a group activity when the phones get swapped and the texter identities become the game. I pity the young girls sitting at the other end of the communication wondering why the test messages just got so random. These are the kind of teen communication games that the wide range of digital options provide. Facebook isn't so much a conversation as a provocation -- or at least a public offering.

Researchers who have spent their lives studying the skill development that happens in early relationships are understandably concerned that this switch to the abbreviated form of connecting will not allow for the intimacy and emotional nuances that happen when you are sitting side by side with someone. Will the skills of reading body language and facial expression be the unintentional loss with all the connecting that happens on our devices? Besides that, the social rules for text conversation are anything but cut and dry. The unspoken ways that kids look for power in their messaging often ends up sending the wrong message. Often this comes in the form of no message.

The social cues of how to relate when you are face to face are clear. If you turn around and walk away while in the middle of conversation, no one is guessing about the meaning. Same goes for hanging up on someone in a phone call. Text message rules are not quite so clear. Not answering a text is akin to hanging up the phone to some, while other people believe it means nothing. Let me say, that this issue has not been a small one as my 14 year old insists on courting his favored girl through text. She obviously has not gotten the text that says, you are supposed to text back.

I continue in my motherly meek way to try to infuse the text with a real conversation. Call and ask the question, "Does this mean anything when you don't answer my text?" My son is too insulted to discuss it. As if relationships in youth are not challenging enough, the idea of limiting oneself to so few characters seems downright daunting. At the least, some smart teen should write a book of etiquette, so everyone can agree what the response, or lack of it, means.

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