Am I right to be concerned about my 16-year-old daughter's obsession with texting? In the past two weeks she has sent or received over 3,000 text messages. So far it hasn't affected her school grades, but I worry that this much texting is excessive and unhealthy. What should we do?
We can certainly understand your concern and would agree that this frequency and level of texting is unhealthy. That said, it's important to recognize that this is not a single-sided issue, and in order to approach it intelligently you'll have to try to see the narrower problem of texting within the context of a much bigger picture – a picture that includes questions about communication, adolescent development, parent-child relationships, family dynamics, and teen social concerns. Stated another way, it's helpful to look at the matter from your daughter's perspective as well as your own. Bear with us while we try to explain.
On the one hand, there's an important sense in which the writer of Ecclesiastes was right when he said that there is "nothing new under the sun." Most of the major life-challenges we face today – and that includes the challenges associated with raising a teenager – have been around since the dawn of human history. On the other hand, it's far from unreasonable to suggest that recent advances in technology may have ratcheted up the intensity of some of these challenges to an unprecedented level. All of this has a special bearing on the issue you've raised.
From a certain point of view your daughter's "obsession" with texting is a very old and familiar problem. Anyone who grew up during the 1960s and 70s, for instance, will recall that teenage girls at the time were notorious for monopolizing the family phone. This in turn was consistent with an even older and more universal phenomenon – something psychologists call "individuation." "Individuation" is a crucial part of growing up. It's the process by which an adolescent starts moving in the direction of becoming an independent adult individual. Many teens attempt to accomplish this by identifying more closely with their peer group than with their family group. This, of course, requires lots of contact and communication with other kids. In earlier times it might have meant slipping out the house more often to spend time with "the gang." The advent of the telephone made it possible for teens to interact with their peers without leaving home. Nowadays, texting and instant-messaging fulfill the same function.
Why do we tell you all this? Because we think that "individuation" has a great deal to do with your daughter's preoccupation with texting. Texting is a tool she's using to stay connected with her friends, and at this stage in her life staying connected with friends is vital to her developing sense of personal identity. You need to understand that, to a certain extent, this is completely normal. You also need to realize that, for kids of her generation, texting is almost like breathing – they have a hard time imagining life without it.
If this worries you, you may need to stop and take stock of the reasons for your anxiety. Is it the texting that bothers you, or could it be that the real focus of your concern is the quality of the relationships the texting represents? This is something you'll need to sort out for yourself before you can have an intelligent and meaningful conversation with your daughter on the subject.
Does this mean that it's unreasonable to set some limits on teen texting? Absolutely not. And it's here that the other side of the question – technological aggravation of old-fashioned family conflicts – comes into play. This is a very real problem. It wouldn't hurt to initiate a discussion of this aspect of the issue with an admission that all of us – kids and adults alike, perhaps yourself included – struggle with the temptation to let social media dominate our lives. Studies have shown that many people of all ages experience acute anxiety when separated from their smart phones for any length of time. It's just the nature of the beast, and it's a good idea for each and every one of us to give some conscious thought to the question of how we're going to keep the monster from getting out of control. In this case it's extremely easy for a habit to become an obsession and for an obsession to become an addiction. That's something that neither you nor your daughter want to see happen.
How can you help your daughter rein in her preoccupation with texting?
- You can begin by educating her about the dangers and risks. In the first place, let her know that, ultimately, nothing she puts in text can be kept absolutely private. Once something is "out there" in cyberspace it's accessible to anyone who has the technical expertise to retrieve it. That's a scary thought, since there are lots of predators lurking around on the internet.
- Second, remind her of the addictive element inherent to any form of involvement with social media. "Normalize" this aspect of the problem by acknowledging once again that all of us are subject to this particular temptation.
- Third, underscore the thought that, for all these reasons, it's wise to set reasonable boundaries and exercise generous amounts of discretion when texting or connecting with others by way of the web. See if the two of you can put your heads together and come up with some parameters and guidelines that will be acceptable to everyone concerned.
If upon reflection you decide that it's not just the texting but the character of the relationships your daughter is cultivating that concerns you, sit down and talk with her about that side of the problem. Get her to think intentionally about the nature and quality of good communication. Ask her, "What are your reasons for wanting to stay in constant contact with your friends? What basic psychological needs are you trying to meet by maintaining these connections? How much meaning do you actually attach to the thousands of words you and your peers are sending back and forth? Are there better ways to let your friends know that you care about them?" Talk about the important differences between electronic communication and actual face-to-face time with other people. Help your daughter gain perspective so that she, too, can approach the subject of texting from a broader and more knowledgeable point of view.
Here at Focus on the Family we have a staff of trained family therapists available to provide you with sound advice and practical assistance over the phone. If you'd like to discuss your situation with one of them, call us for a free consultation.
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