Last week, researchers from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) reported that teens who send more than 120 text messages per day - "hyper-texters" - may be at greater risk for drug and alcohol use, compared to their peers who send fewer text messages. In a study of 4,257 high school students, the CWRU researchers found that the "hyper-texters" are more likely to drink, smoke cigarettes, and have multiple sexual partners. And, not surprisingly, the hyper-texters are also getting less sleep. They're staying up past their bedtime exchanging the latest gossip with friends - via text.
Last month, the Nielsen Corporation released a study of more than 60,000 cell-phone accounts in the United States. They found that the average teenage girl in the United States now sends 4,050 text messages every month: that works out to 135 every day. So the average American teenage girl is now a "hyper-texter", by the standards of the CWRU study. Does that mean that the average girl is now at increased risk for drinking, smoking, and unsafe sex?
Maybe not. The two studies are not directly comparable. The Nielsen study was a snapshot of the entire nation, whereas the CWRU study was conducted earlier and was confined to Cuyahoga County, Ohio (i.e. greater Cleveland). In the CWRU study, only 19.8% of teens were hyper-texters. Perhaps hyper-texting in the CWRU study was merely a marker for a kid who is, relatively speaking, an outlier. Perhaps the top 20% of texters are at greater risk, not because they are texting, but because they are in the most extreme 20%.
Maybe. But it's doubtful. I think the evidence - which I present in my book Girls on the Edge - strongly suggests that hyper-texting may actually be a cause of the delinquent behavior. And girls are more likely to be hyper-texters. Recall that the average teen girl, nationwide, is now sending 4,050 text messages a month, compared to 2,628 for the average boy. So while the average girl is now sending 135 text messages a day, the average boy is sending a paltry 88 texts/day.
In Girls on the Edge, I discuss a phenomenon which psychologists are calling "co-rumination." Co-rumination is what happens when tween and teenage girls are trapped in a cyberbubble of 24/7 texting and Facebook and cell phones, hyperconnected to other same-age girls, but disconnected from any alternate perspective. Imagine a 15-year-old girl, Emily, who is concerned because her 15-year-old boyfriend, Justin, has been making eyes at Olivia. If she could consult with an adult woman - such as a teacher or even just a 20-something female friend - that adult woman might say, "Don't worry about Justin. He's just a 15-year-old dork. Why don't you wait another year or two, or three?" And that might be very good advice.
But today that girl is more likely to text her friend, Melissa. And Melissa texts back "OMG I saw J & O last night go n the BR together!!!" Melissa and Emily are now texting each other, becoming more and more frantic, analyzing the details of what Justin and Olivia might have done together last night. Melissa is not competent to counsel her friend, because Melissa has the same perspective and the same values as Emily has. A competent counselor can offer a different perspective. But both Emily and Melissa think Justin is a hot dude. They both care what he thinks; they both believe it's important to know who Justin really likes. And so Emily and Melissa, trapped in the cyberbubble, work each other up into a frantic positive feedback frenzy of anxiety. That's co-rumination.
Psychologists are finding that co-rumination happens almost exclusively among girls, not among boys. Most boys are not frantically texting one another trying to decipher the meaning of Emily's cryptic comment on her Facebook wall. Instead, the boys are firing rocket-propelled grenades at the bad guys in COD:BO.
Make no mistake. The boys have their own problems. The boys are much more likely than their sisters to stay up past midnight playing Call of Duty: Black Ops. Boys today are much more likely than girls to be truly addicted to video games - a phenomenon I explore at length in my book Boys Adrift.
When I speak to parents on these topics - which I do, very often - it's striking me to how oblivious many parents are. They don't have a clue what's going on in the lives of their children - especially teenage daughters. It's midnight. Emily just sent Melissa a text message with the latest gossip. Melissa responds. Emily and Melissa may be up for an hour in the middle of the night. The parents have no idea that this is happening. Emily and Melissa are texting, not talking. There's nothing for the parents to hear.
"I'm not sure where to draw the line," one parent said to me. But some aspects of this issue are pretty simple. Your parents didn't let you take a phone call at midnight when you were a teenager, did they? Why not? Because they knew that it was more important for you to get a good night's sleep than to be up in the middle of the night gossiping. That simple truth hasn't changed; only the technology has. Twenty years ago it wouldn't have been possible for a teenager to take a phone call in the middle of the night without a parent knowing about it; today it's easy.
This part of the problem is easy to fix. Here's a tip: put the charger for your daughter's cell phone (and your son's) in your bedroom, in the parent's bedroom. At 9:30 each evening, the cell phone is switched off and goes in the charger - in your bedroom. Your daughter can retrieve it the next morning.
She won't like this idea. "I use my cell phone as my alarm clock," many girls say.
No problem. You can buy an alarm clock. Seven bucks at the discount store.
Now the girl gets really upset. "But what if there's an emergency?" she cries.
We still have a landline, you explain to your daughter. If there's a true emergency, your friend is welcome to call our house phone and I - your parent - will answer. I - your parent - will decide whether this ‘emergency' is sufficiently urgent to require waking you up from sleep. It can probably wait.
Make it easy for your daughter to do the right thing. When her friend asks, "Hey, I texted you last night at midnight, how come you didn't answer?" - what is your daughter supposed to say? Do you expect her to say, "Well, I thought it was more important for me to get a good night's sleep than to answer your text." It's not reasonable to expect any girl to say that, not in this era when the average girl is sending more than 4,000 text messages a month.
Make it easy for her. Let her say: "My evil witch of a Mom takes my cell phone at 9:30 each night and I can't get it back until the morning!" Be willing to be the evil witch, or wizard. Make it easy for your daughter to get a good night's sleep. (And unplug your son's video game at the same time, for the same reason.)
But even more important: practice what you preach. When you pick up your child at school, don't be on the cell phone with someone else, waving at your child with one hand to get in the car while you continue talking on the phone. Also: When you're talking with your child and your own cell phone beeps, switch it off. Don't even look to see who is calling. Make it clear to your child that when you're talking with her, you won't talk a phone call from anybody. Make it clear that she is your top priority.
This Thursday is Thanksgiving. This year it's our turn to host the extended family. My wife and I have agreed to enforce one rule: no devices at the table. We're going to put a sign at the entrance to the dining room: "This is a no phone zone." Then we'll give thanks that we're all together, really together, with no technology, no screens, to pull us apart.
At least. . .not until the football game comes on.
Leonard Sax MD PhD is a family physician, a psychologist, and the author of Girls on the Edge: the four factors driving the new crisis for girls (Basic Books, 2010).