Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Text Best Thing

In Texting May Be Taking a Toll on Teens, the New York Times argues that there may be unintended consequences of the lifestyle marketing pitches of cell phone carriers, now that teens are often opting for text over the voice channel.

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.

More profound questions about what it means to be in two places at one time for all of us, which are raised by Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg in their essay about "Place" and "Networked Public Space" in Networked Publics, are not addressed in this kind of coverage, even when headlines are filled with stories about accidents involving texting pilots and texting train engineers. Of course, the role of texting in relationship to a larger ecology of literacy practices is complicated, and SMS Research is a relatively new field.

Like many news items about teens and the potential evils of digital communication, the reporter also chooses a surprisingly narrow range of "experts" to talk about teens, mobile phones, and digital parenting. For example, MIT's Sherry Turkle is consulted to provide some attempt at "balance" but not Eszter Hargittai or Mimi Ito.

"Teens feel they are being punished for behavior in which their parents indulge," she said. And in what she calls a poignant twist, teenagers still need their parents’ undivided attention.

"Even though they text 3,500 messages a week, when they walk out of their ballet lesson, they’re upset to see their dad in the car on the BlackBerry,” she said. “The fantasy of every adolescent is that the parent is there, waiting, expectant, completely there for them."

Turkle raises the thornier issue about what this story says about adult practices and implicitly points out how newspaper stores often make the focus the digital "other," whether it is teens or terrorists.

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