Thunder thumbs: Finding quality time with the hyper-texter

Are your family dinners interrupted by constant texting? Child psychologist Melanie Barwick - who's also the mother of texting teens - offers some advice on how to deal with it.

It's common to think that child psychologists should be able to handle all sorts of child-rearing issues. I'd like to think that's true, but I know my limitations and at the moment, I'm struggling with the modern-day version of quality time with my kids.

At issue is the observation I made recently that even when we have time together, there's a gang of friends hanging with us by virtue of the cellphone that seems to be permanently attached to their hand.

I know what you're thinking. Manage the behavior with clear rules: no texting at the dinner table is an obvious and reasonable one. 

But what about rapid-fire texting interludes during family movie time, whilst driving in the car or when playing a board game? It's not clear that their texting is interrupting a conversation, per se, but it still has a presence in the room; a presence that can lead to resentment. I have no doubt that there are many parents, worldwide, who are facing this intrusion on quality time with their kids and perhaps with their partners as well. 

Teens and texting

report from the Pew Research Center found 38% of American texted their friends on a daily basis in September 2008. By February 2009, tha figure had shot up to 54%. 

Half of teens sent 1,500 messages a month. A third of all teens sent 3,000 a month. Older teen girls — age 14-17 — were the most frequent texters at 100 per day.

Most parents feel that they have a good sense of their kids and the risks they may face. Yet researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland have found greater concerns for parents, reporting that hyper-texting — sending more than 120 texts a day — could be a sign your child is more likely to smoke, drink alcohol and have sex.

In their survey of more than 4,000 American teens, the Case Western researchers found an association between hyper-texting and frantic networking — more than three hours a day on social networking sites — and risky behaviour.

Their minds are not the only part at risk. Physiotherapists have also cautioned that texting can bring on repetitive stress injuries in the wrists and arms. One neuroscientist has cautioned that hyper-texting may contribute to a decline in attention spans and perhaps even towards the rise of attention-deficit disorders. Be advised; these are questions for study and are not supported by conclusive research, as yet. 

My concern is that hyper-texting behaviour is rude and interrupts quality time that should be filled with conversation and shared experiences.

The news is not all bad. There is also research evidence that suggests texting might have benefits for kids.

Coventry University study  of 35 British preteens found those who texted frequently also scored highly in school tests and in standard spelling tests.

Beverly Plester and her colleagues asked 88 children aged 10 to 12 to write text messages describing 10 different scenarios. When they compared the number of textisms, or text message abbreviations, these children used to their reading ability, they found that those who used more textisms were better readers. 

Another positive associated with use of cellphones and texting is that they can be used to connect kids to mental health services. 

Cellphones play a central role in the lives of young people and are being increasingly recognized as valuable tools in health care. Research conducted by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in Southern Adelaide, Australia, demonstrated that enabling youth to access their therapist directly through cellphones improves engagement and retention, and texting, in particular, is a useful tool for co-ordinating appointments.

While there are pros and cons to consider, kids do seem to have a hard time disengaging from their phones.

To be fair, we must acknowledge that we often behave the same way when we hear the chime of Outlook, the BlackBerry or iPhone signalling a new email or text has arrived. It is just plain tempting to interrupt what you're doing and have a look. The same behavioural principle applies to kids and their texting behavior. We have to recognize the extent to which we are modelling a wired frame of mind. 

Is it a problem?

Whether a child's texting is excessive depends on the parental threshold — if a parent is on her cellphone the whole night, the threshold is typically much higher. 

Another consideration is how the child is doing in school. Are they getting good grades, are they focused on extracurricular activities at which they excel, do they have friends? Do they seem overly tired or disengaged? The golden rule is whether a behaviour impedes functioning in the real world. 

Parents must recognize that their teenage world of yesteryear is in many ways different from their kids' experience, and for this reason we have to be careful not to penalize them for making their way in a new age. One might consider a child's ability to navigate technological innovations with ease as an advantage and a sign of adaptability that will contribute to their success in the world. I get that, but I'm still uneasy.

What to do?

How much texting is too much? A look at the bill may show 2,000 texts in one month. While I'm not certain we can come up with a number that is suggestive of dysfunctional versus developmentally appropriate and non-harmful texting behaviour, it seems like a good idea to keep tabs on the number of texts kids are sending. Only then can we consider setting some boundaries about when and where they can text, or encourage them to send fewer texts every day by setting a target number and reducing it by, say, 10 or 20 a week.

Some parents have reportedly kept a box at the bottom of the stairs, and asked their children to drop off their handsets on the way up to bed. Families may opt to participate in the American Academy of Pediatrics Turn Off Week, a week that encourages families to go for a week without screen time — computers, TV, and by extension, cellphones.

The common sense approach to thunder thumbs impeding family quality time would appear to require some measure of modelling good behavior, teaching kids when it's appropriate to text and make calls, monitoring texting habits and drawing attention to how kids might self-monitor their use, and praising moments of connectedness that are not interrupted by texting activity. 

As with much of parenting, it seems this requires a blending of good values, appropriate behaviour and adaptability to a changing world.