Texting: The Coded Lives of Teens







You read this cell-phone exchange over your 15-year-old daughter's shoulder with growing alarm. Is she transmitting secret messages into outer space? Arming a superweapon? No. This is a text-message conversation with a friend in need. Here's the translation: 

"How are you?"

"Alive and smiling. What's up?"

"Boyfriend [or best friend] trouble. Crying real big tears."

"Care to chat?"

"As soon as possible!"

"Parent over shoulder. See you online." 

The good news is that your daughter isn't alone in her text-messaging behavior. In just a few years, texting has become the primary form of communication for 44 percent of teens in the United States, and is even more popular in other countries. 

The bad news is that new studies are raising concerns about teens who text frequently. Potential side effects include overtiredness, high-risk driving behavior (either theirs or a friend's), increased vulnerability to those who would hurt or harass them, and poorer communication skills. 

But texting is here to stay, and it can help teens stay safe and connected to parents. So how do parents and kids negotiate this new technology? 

*Teens Are Texting* 

For those who wonder when "text" became a verb, here's a brief definition: text-messaging involves sending short written messages from one phone to another. You can text your spouse during a meeting with a reminder to pick up milk on the way home. Or send a quick curfew reminder to your daughter without embarrassing her. Or--if you're a teenager--you can text someone sitting next to you with a message you don't want others to hear. 

Teenagers love texting because it can be cheaper than calling; it's instant; it's fairly private; and it's totally portable. Wil Groesbeck, a 15-year-old Latter-day Saint in Houston, thinks he handles about 40 texts a day between after-school and bedtime. Forty texts in six hours? About one every ten minutes? Yep, he says, that sounds about right. 

*But Not Everyone Is Doing It*

Wil's mom Karene willingly pays for an "unlimited" texting package for Wil and his younger brother for reasons of safety and convenience. "It's easy to get hold of them," Karene says. "For example, yesterday one son had tutoring after school and I could just text him and tell him that without having to call the school." His phone is off during the day, she says, "but I know it comes on immediately when the school day is over, and the text will come up." 

But other parents whose kids carry cell phones have blocked the texting feature. "It's expensive, and they don't really need it," says Karene's sister-in-law, Pam Smith, whose son Patrick, age 15, and daughter Jessica, age 13, both carry phones. Pam believes her kids are plenty accessible to each other and to her, without needing to text. "And so many times, they just don't need to be on the phone at all with their friends." 

Patrick doesn't mind not being able to text. "I probably wouldn't use it anyway," he shrugs. "It's too hard to remember all the abbreviated words." 

Of course, many teens don't carry cell phones at all. In a study by Disney Mobile and Harris Interactive, only 38 percent of kids over age twelve have them. Janine Barwick, a Latter-day Saint mother of eight children in Euclid, Ohio, says her 15-year-old son Joseph hasn't asked for one yet. "He knows he would have to pay for it, and would need a regular source of income. I imagine once he turns sixteen, and gets a job, and wants to pay a monthly bill, we'll discuss it and we'll probably let him have one." 

*Concerns about Teen Texting*

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, over half of teens with cell phones use them after lights out. Most phone activity occurs just after bedtime, but young people sometimes chat or text until 3:00 a.m., and those who stay up report being three to five times as tired as those who don't.

In addition, 47 percent of teens who admit to risky driving habits are sending and reading text messages at the wheel, reports AAA and Seventeen. Driver distractions (like texting) are a factor in 25-50 percent of all crashes. And car accidents are already the number-one killer of teens (ages 15-20) in the United States, claiming over 6,000 lives every year. (What about those sleepy teens who talk all night and text while driving?)

Also sobering are the stories of youth who have been verbally abused, stalked, or threatened via text-message. Carrying a cell phone makes a teen more vulnerable to repeated, unwanted messages. According to a 2007 study commissioned by Liz Claiborne Inc. and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, "Twenty to 30 percent of teens who had been in relationships said their partner had constantly checked in on them, had harassed or insulted them, or had made unwanted requests for sexual activity, all via cell phones or text messages." It further states that "1 out of 4 [teens] reported hourly contact with a dating partner between midnight and 5 a.m.--in some cases, 30 times per hour. And 1 out of 10 had received physical threats electronically." Parents were largely unaware of the problem.

Fortunately, none of the teens interviewed for this article report experiences like these, though some have friends who have been targets. Of course, harassment can happen with a regular phone or even email. But parents are more able to intervene with calls to a home number, and emails do not disrupt an on-the-go teen life the same way phone messages can.

Finally, teens' social skills can suffer when conducted via the cryptic language of text-messaging. "Like many people, teens think they are more polite on the cell phone than they really are," says the study by Disney Mobile and Harris Interactive. "Nine out of 10 teens say they are respectful when using the device, but as many as 65 percent admit that they've used it to make calls and send text messages in the classroom."

Other less-polite texting behavior? More than one-fourth of teens have sent text messages at the dinner table. A few (14 percent) have asked someone on a date by text message--probably more casual or shy than rude. But the 7 percent who have broken up with someone via text-message certainly aren't showing any social graces.

"I think [texting is] really impersonal," admits Karene, Wil's mother. "It's not engaging them in conversation. I have a friend whose daughter texts her parents from upstairs so she doesn't have to walk downstairs. It replaces having to have a conversation. Me, I want to talk to the person."

Other friends and family notice problems. "I know friends that text 24/7 and it's really annoying," says Sheryl Robbins, a 16-year-old Latter-day Saint. "I went to the movies with a couple of my friends and one of them texted the other the whole time." She continues, "I don't think it's good because you're hanging out with them, [but] it's like they're not really there. They're talking to someone else."

"[Texting] can be a big distraction," agrees Sheryl's mother Karen. "I think it's sometimes worse than video games. They have their head buried in their cell phone, texting all the time."

Patrick Smith admits that text-message gossip is a problem among his friends. "It allows them to spread rumors and news within moments of finding out." But, he says, the real issue is cheating. "Some of the newer phones give kids the ability to shut off all sounds. They can receive messages like answers to a test," he explains. "I've never seen someone get caught. They just close the phone or stick it in a pocket when the teacher comes by." 

*On the Bright Side*

Although there are many concerns about texting, there are also many positive uses for this technology. Here are just a few examples:

* Youth leaders can text young men or young women to remind them about mutual activities.

* Parents or youth leaders text teens quotes from Church leaders, or other uplifting thoughts.

* Teens can reach out to parents throughout the day, or vice-versa, by sending a quick "I love you" or other positive text messages.

* Youth can send texts to teens in their ward telling them how much they were missed at a Church activity.

*Strategies for Safe Texting*

Should you choose to allow your teens to text, here is some helpful advice for parents:

1. Set a good example in your own phone behavior: at the wheel, at the dinner table, during church, or during important conversations.

2. Discuss house rules for cell phone use and text-messaging. Be clear and upfront about penalties that will be imposed for breaking the rules or going over monthly plan limits. This helps teens learn to monitor and take responsibility for their behavior.

3. Limit the number of texts your child may send/receive in your cell phone plan.

4. Review the itemized list of calls/texts each month on your child's cell phone bill. Know who they are calling--and who's calling them. Ask your teen about unfamiliar numbers.

5. Have kids surrender their phones at bedtime and meals, during family time, and at church.

6. Consider texting to be "social time," and make sure the same rules apply as for phone use, i.e., the amount of time they may spend talking with friends each day.

7. Require your children to communicate with you in person or by phone as much as possible: "If you want to use my car, you need to ask me face-to-face."

8. It's not the end of the world if kids lose their cell phone and/or texting privileges. It may remind them that it is a privilege.

Karene even reviews her sons' text-messaging content if she's concerned about what they're saying. "I'm still the parent," she says firmly. "It's not that they have no privacy. They have provisional privacy. It's all based on responsible behavior." As a Latter-day Saint parent, she takes her own responsibilities seriously as well: "I'm responsible for teaching them correct principles."

*Know the Code*

Are you mystified by your teen's text messages filled with jumbles of letters and numbers? Here are some common phrases decoded:

2G2BT Too good to be true

404 I haven't a clue

411 Information

9 Parent is watching

99 Parent is no longer watching

BI5 Back in five

BTW By the way

CSL Can't stop laughing

DGT Don't go there

GOI Get over it

ISH Insert sarcasm here

MOS Mom over shoulder

P911 Parent alert

PAL Parents are listening

PBB Parent behind back

PLS Please

P-ZA Pizza

QQ Quick question

RBTL Read between the lines

RUOK Are you okay?

RUSOS Are you SOS (in trouble)?

S Smile

SLAP Sounds like a plan

SOZ Sorry

TMI Too much information

TNTL Trying not to laugh

WE Whatever

WFM Works for me

WYCM Will you call me?

Y Why?

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