First there was the telephone. Then came the smart phone, with internet access and email. And now there is texting. Cell phones have opened the door to a new way of communicating—and nearly everyone is using it.
Over 80% of Americans now own cell phones, and three out of four of them send and receive text messages. Texting is especially prevalent among younger people. According to a survey funded by the Liz Claiborne Foundation, smart phone owners between age 18 and 24 send or receive an astounding average of 109 messages on a normal day. Fully a third of cell phone users now say they prefer texting to voice mail.
Dating couples also text one another. Almost one in four dating teens, for example, communicate with their partner, on average, hourly between midnight and 5 A.M. Hourly. This raises some interesting questions: How does so much texting affect relationships in the young adults who use it the most? Does it make them feel closer? And what role does texting play in long-distant relationships?
A study conducted by psychologists at the University of North Carolina sought to answer these questions. They recruited 395 students (175 males and 220 females) who said they were currently involved in a romantic relationship. The average age of the participants was just over 19, and they had been in the relationship they described for an average of 15 months. Some of these relationships were geographically close, but the average distance between the partners was significant—250 miles.
The researchers wanted to get a picture of exactly how these partners communicated with one another, so they inquired not only about texting but also about how often they communicated by phone, email, internet chatting, and face-to-face contact—for example, via Skype.
To complement the data, researchers also asked participants to rate how satisfied they were in their relationships via a 10-item scale that let them indicate, on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) how much they agreed with statements like the following:
I feel that my relationship is a very close one.
I wish we had more intimacy and closeness in our relationship.
The first finding of significance in this study was the wide variation in how much partners relied on texting as a way of communicating with each other. While some partners virtually never texted, others who sent as many as 500 texts a day to their partner, which, for such couples, accounted for more than 90% of their overall communication.
A second finding that appears to be important was that as texting increased, other forms of communication decreased. This finding ran counter to what is known as the “stimulation hypothesis,” which predicts that as texting increased other means of communication would as well. The researchers instead found the opposite: More texting led to less communication via other means.
More Texting = Less Happiness
Now here, as they say, is the kicker: The higher the percentage of communications between partners that came via texting, the less happy they reported being in their relationships.
So what is going on here? Texting is for sure a core part of these young people's lives. Naturally, it is also part of their romantic relationships. That said, this research should give us pause to reflect. Here is some food for thought:
As texting increased as a proportion of communication between partners, other forms of communication, including actual cell phone conversations and internet chatting, decreased.
Clearly, face to face contact is the most intimate and personal form of communication. It affords a rich and nuanced context that includes visual, behavioral, and audio cues. Is it possible that texting is somehow more impersonal than all the forms of communication that were assessed in the study, including internet chats and phone calls?
If texting is indeed a more impersonal, emotionally-limited means of communication, could that be a reason why those who rely on it most are least happy in their relationships?
I leave it to you to reflect on the above. Perhaps more important, it might be wise to think about the ways in which you and your own partner communicate, and to decide if it might be wise to alter the mix in the interest of your relationship as a whole.
Next Up: How might insecurity, or a need to be in control in relationships, fit into this scenario of texting and relationship satisfaction?
Joseph Nowinski’s next book, Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder, is available for preorder at Amazon.com