Short Message Service (SMS), a text messaging service on mobile phones, is being used by a wider and wider audience for social communication. Instead of speaking directly to the person you’re communicating with, you use SMS, or “texts,” to send messages that the recipient can pick up at his or her convenience. You don’t have to leave a voice mail or send an email; with a text, your message is delivered directly through nothing other than your mobile phone service. It’s perhaps fair to say that among some groups, SMS- or “texting” - is replacing real-time voice communication because it is has the advantage of being readable at the viewer’s convenience. There’s no risk of disturbing someone during dinner, the middle of the night, or while the person is at work, school, or socializing.
This is the theory of the text. In reality, however, heavy text message users send and receive texts virtually nonstop throughout their waking hours. They take advantage of the increasingly tempting services that mobile phone companies provide and have long, extended conversations with their social contacts that go on from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed, even checking their messages all night long. They walk down the street with their actual friends while each of them texts other friends, or perhaps each other. Out to dinner, at parties, or at family gatherings, their phone is always at the ready so that they can get and return the incoming flow of messages. At work or in school, it’s all they can do to put their phones down long enough to concentrate.
We know well enough about the dangers of texting while driving. Although we think of teen drivers as the ones most likely to text while behind the wheel, a USA Today study in May 2013 cited adults as the real culprits with 98% of adults admitting to this behavior compared to 43% of teens. Given that adults are more likely to drive than teens, this statistic makes sense. It is nevertheless ironic that many of these adults are the parents who are trying to teach their children to leave the phone in the back seat. Adult pedestrians are also becoming increasingly likely to engage in “distracted walking,” in which they text and walk at the same time.
The benefits of texting as a convenient way to reach your friends pale in comparison to these risks to your own life and those of other people. Short of having these calamitous outcomes, though, texting carries with it other, less obvious threats. As pointed out in a 2013 study by Karla Klein Murdock of Washington and Lee University, published in the journal Psychology of Media and Popular Culture, extreme texting can carry with it risks to an individual’s physical and mental health that accumulate over time. Murdock points out that there are inherent problems in any type of electronic messaging, but particularly texting, which places a premium on brevity and lack of explanation.
Text messages are also written quickly particularly if the texter is doing something else so the content may contain typos and be otherwise ambiguous. As a result, a text message can be easily misunderstood by the recipient, creating stress in the relationship. Then there is the fact that, although they need not be read in real time, some recipients feel they must do so or seem rude, disinterested, or socially out of it. Thus, the texts need to be monitored and responded to as quickly as they come in, which in turn only increases their frequency even more.
Klein Murdock wondered whether young adults experiencing stress in their relationships who, in turn, engaged in high levels of texting, would be at risk of some of the classic stress syndrome symptoms of burnout, low levels of psychological well-being, and poor sleep quality. Young adults are known to be the most frequent texters of all age groups, with a 2011 Pew Center Poll showing an average of 50 texts per day (compared to 10 in the 35-44 age group). They are also highly prone to interpersonal stress given the fact that they’re testing out all kinds of new relationships in their lives. Therefore, Klein Murdock believed this would be a perfect age group on whom to test the idea that stress + texting can lead to a host of life problems.
Using a sample of 83 first-year undergraduates (56 females), Murdock asked participants to report on how much interpersonal stress they were experiencing, their number of daily texts, degree of school burnout (exhaustion, cynicism, and sense of efficacy), feelings of emotional well-being, and degree of sleep problems. These participants had a whopping average of 115 daily texts but otherwise were relatively robust scores on the measures of stress, burnout, and sleep. However, when Murdock broke the respondents into groups based on their texting frequency, she found that the high-volume texters who were most stressed in their relationships were also most likely to admit to experiencing academic burnout and the lowest emotional well-being. Poorer sleep quality also seemed to plague the frequent texters. It’s difficult to sleep when you’re preoccupied with a text you just received, composing a response, or perhaps fretting about a text’s exact meaning.
Why might heavy texting carry such a costly toll on people who are highly stressed in their relationships? A reasonable possibility that Murdock suggests has to do with the behavior and expectations of the heavy texter. Texting creates its own relational vortex. If the texts are flying fast and furious, things can easily get out of hand. Without the in-person cues that you would get if you were having a face-to-face discussion, misunderstandings and hurt feelings can quickly escalate.
Texting also carries a cognitive cost, draining your attentional resources. As your inner reserve is worn down, you become exhausted and burned out. The physiological activation involved in texting erodes your sleep, and the stage is set for you to feel emotionally depleted.
You might conclude that a study of first-year students has little bearing on adults who, we know, are less frequent texters and also more in control of their emotions and relationships. The massively messaging hordes of young adults, however, will soon grow older and carry with them a habit begun during their highly formative years into midlife.
The most recent studies of text messaging and age are already almost 3 years old, and there is no apparent end coming soon to the worldwide popularity of this mode of social communication. Although the text usage data were not broken down by age group, the Pew Center released a September 2013 poll showing that in just the last 4 years, double the percent of cell phone users now use their devices to go online than was true in 2009. The age breakdown included half of 18-29 year-olds and 35% of those in the 30-49 year-old-group. And you guessed it- 81% of the sample used their phones for texting.
We’re clearly not going to throw out our cell phones or stop texting any time soon. Murdock’s results suggest, though, that more of us might want to consider taking a break once in a while. We hear stories of weddings in which guests must check their phones at the door or dinners where the first person to look at a phone picks up the tab. Redefining some of our social norms can definitely help break the cycle in which some texters find themselves. The psychological costs, however, may be more difficult to monitor and change. Based on Murdock’s study, consider the following if your texting is causing you stress:
- Count the number of texts you get and give each day. This should be easy to tally. Over 50 a day and you know you’re in the heavy texting use. 10 or under (not while driving) is probably safe in terms of being at the extreme of the distribution. Nevertheless, those 10 texts may create some stress for you.
- Regardless of how many you send, who do you text? Are you texting close friends, family members, or business associates who prefer texting as a means of communication? If your circle is relatively narrow, and you know the other person well, as long as texting is balanced with real-life communication, the chances are the texting won’t have deleterious effects. If you spread your texts far and wide (i.e. texting just to text), this might be a good indication you need to draw your circle in closer.
- When do you text? Texting at night interferes with your sleep. It’s probably also not the most coherent of all the communication you might provide. Similarly, drunk texting has many obvious potential risks as well. Finally, texting while with the friends, dates, partners, or family members whose company you’re supposed to be enjoying is just self-defeating.
- Do you get more pleasure than pain from texting? If you’re constantly preoccupied by the messages you’re getting and unable to get them off your mind, then texting might not be the best means of communication for you. Don’t feel you need to be shamed into texting by your friends. Go old school and use your phone for, well, talking.
- Are the psychological costs getting out of hand? You may be constantly exceeding your monthly capacity but the psychological costs will be far higher than any additional text charges. Look honestly at your sleep, feelings of being drained by the pressure to stay on top of your texts, and use of down time. Let your friends and associates know that you’re not snubbing them, and use the extra time and mental energy to replenish your internal reserves.
Mobile communication has many advantages in our mobile society, allowing us to stay in touch with the people we care about regardless of distance. Make sure you use this tool to your advantage, and you’ll find that you genuinely appreciate and look forward to both your virtual, and real, time with those closest to you.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Murdock, K. K. (2013). Texting while stressed: Implications for students’ burnout, sleep, and well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2, 207-221. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000012