You Say You Want A (Texting) Revolution?

Teen texting You’re driving down the highway and see a vehicle that has gotten into a horrible accident. You quickly dial 911, report the accident and likely helped in saving someone’s life. You’re home alone, smell smoke and realize that a fire has started in your house. You get out of the house, dial 911 from your cell phone and the local fire department is at your front door in minutes. Clearly, when it comes down to it, the number one reason for owning a cell phone is for safety. Wrong. At least one demographic doesn’t think so: Teenagers.  

Earlier this month, Nielsen released a report with staggering statistics relating to teens and text messaging. The report found that texting, has in fact, become the primary reason that teens own a mobile phone, secondary to that of safety. Nielsen reported that 43% of teens admitted the reason they have a cell phone is for exchanging text messages while 35% reported it was for safety purposes (in 2008 the number one reason was safety).

Nielsen also reported that the average teen sends or receives 3,339 texts per month - that’s roughly 111 texts per day. Teen females are the heaviest users, sending or receiving an average of 4,050 texts per month. So, what is driving this “teen texting revolution” and what exactly is causing teens to believe that exchanging text messages is more important than their own safety or safety of others?

Although parents would hope otherwise, I think that safety simply isn’t something that is top of mind for teens. Unless teens have been in a dangerous situation in which their safety has been compromised, it’s not something they worry about or necessarily even think about. Their heads are generally filled with thoughts about whether they’ll get asked to Prom next week, if they’ve made the JV basketball team or if their arch nemesis is starting rumors about them. Some may argue that teens have their priorities mixed up. But, can you blame them? We’ve all been there, and we’ve all viewed the world through the eyes of a teen.  

Today’s teens have grown up in a world where they are connected to technology 24/7. This is all they know and it’s unlikely that they can even imagine a different world. Texting has become such an easy form of communication, and in a way, give teens instant gratification. Diving deeper, teens tend to have more insecurities than other age groups and many haven’t quite sharpened their social skills just yet. This group not only expects to constantly be connected with their friends, but needs to constantly be connected; possibly because it reaffirms the fact that teens have such a large social web and are liked by others – which of course feeds off of their insecurities. Moreover, a lot of teens lack in-person social skills, which many argue can be attributed to the influx of social networking sites. Naturally, they’ll feel more comfortable having a text messaging conversation rather than an in-person one. Then of course, there is the boredom factor. It’s likely that many teens text so much simply because they are bored in class or bored at another function they’re required to be at.

Clearly, there are so many factors fueling this teen texting revolution, and I think there’s no point in trying to fight it. Teens are texters and that’s not going to change any time soon. Accepting this sentiment, I think there are ways that texting among teens can be used to do good. Earlier this month, one of our clients, Mobile Messenger, partnered with an audience response platform company, Poll Everywhere, to introduce an SMS-based educational program to high schools. High school teachers have begun to use the program to gauge students’ comprehension of a particular topic by asking students to respond to a poll question (via their mobile device). The results are then delivered immediately to the teacher. This program is still in its initial stages, and obviously there are many questions to be answered and worked out. However, engaging students in school is something that has been a struggle generation after generation, and because this new approach works with students and one of their core behaviors, as opposed to against them, I think it represents a good step in the right direction. 

The next question is how long will the teen texting revolution last before something new takes over? (Nielsen says it will be apps). What are the ramifications of this type of behavior from a cultural standpoint? And, in what ways can we take advantage of this so-called revolution to do good? 

- Contributed by Jessica Boardman. Follow her @jboards.