For many of us, we knew we were officially teenagers when we got our first cell phones. Instead of a license to drive, it was a license to social life, friendship, different forms of entertainment, and privacy from parents. But is this necessarily a good thing? Over the past decade, professors, researchers, and parents alike have asked how this new connection to and “need” for technology, or cell phones in particular, is impacting the younger generation.
A 2012 study done by Professors Sarah Coyne and Laura Padilla-Walker in our School of Family Life showed, among other things, that greater amounts of family cell phone use was associated with higher levels of family connection. A May 2017 study done by the same team with co-author Hailey G. Holmgren, focused on cell phone usage rates during adolescence, and the effects of that usage, as opposed to the effects of other media use, over time on adolescent relationships.
The Study: Who and What?
The texting and media habits of 425 Washington state youth were monitored throughout a six-year period from the ages of 13-18. While patterns of social networking, watching television, playing video games, and texting were all reported, researchers focused primarily on the frequency that youth texted throughout the six years. This data was then analyzed and correlated with reported depression, aggression, anxiety rates, as well as self-reported measurements of relationship health between the child and their father to find insightful correlations.
At the end of the six years, researchers found that both texting and social media use among teenagers tended to exist at “moderate levels during early adolescence, increased [levels] during mid-adolescence, peak around age 16-17, and then decrease slightly as individuals grew into adulthood.” These two forms of media most likely better serve the needs of youth to enhance their social activities and monitor social interactions. Coyne et al. found that, concerning texting, teenagers could be grouped into four distinct categories according to their texting trajectories throughout the six years: Moderates, Perpetuals, Increasers, and Decreasers.
The majority of adolescents (67%) showed moderate levels of texting throughout their youth that increased slightly over the course of their adolescence. These individuals had fewer reportings of negative behavioral outcomes. From this, we learn that the early development of self-regulation could be important in predicting stable, moderate patterns of texting among youth.
A smaller group of adolescents (14%) showed high levels of texting during their early adolescence that slightly decreased over time. Individuals in this group tended to be depressed, male, and coming from single-parent homes. Of the four groups,”perpetuals” experienced the most negative outcomes with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and aggression. Coyne and her colleagues concluded that sustained high levels of texting “may interfere with the formation of face-to-face relationships” resulting in negative behaviors and an adolescent’s poor relationship with his or her father. On a more positive note, “perpetuals” tended to have the strongest relationships with their best friends, suggesting that texting can strengthen particular relationships.
Seven percent of adolescents in the study had high levels of texting during early adolescence and a sharp decrease in texting throughout their adolescent years. These individuals were able to control their texting habits and ultimately showed the lowest levels of depression and the highest relationship quality with their fathers.
“Increasers” showed low levels of texting during their early adolescents, rapidly increased their texting during mid-adolescence and then slowed down during their transition to adulthood. This group appeared to be relatively healthy in terms of behavior and relationship outcomes despite their increase in texting during their mid-adolescence.
Why is This Study Important?
Teenagers and young adults should be aware that this research shows a strong correlation between high patterns of texting over the adolescent years and impaired relationships. Parents of teenagers should be aware that “it is likely that both of these forms of media (texting and social media) represent a particularly salient way of communicating and connecting with others that is unique from other forms of media,” say Coyne et al. “This may be especially salient during adolescence, which is characterized by numerous emotional and social transitions (Steinberg, 2010). Both texting and social media have the potential to enhance a number of social transitions that are important during this age, including having more friends of the opposite sex and entering into romantic and sexual relationships. Additionally, social status is very important, and adolescents may use both texting and social media as ways to participate in and monitor their social world.”
What are its Implications?
“Overall,” continued Coyne, “this study revealed a pattern of texting across adolescence that is similar to some media types (i.e., social media) but not others (television and video games). The majority of adolescents were able to utilize texting in a moderate fashion that did not appear to impede or hinder their relationships with others. However, high and fairly stable texting early in adolescence appeared to be related to a host of negative behavioral and relationship outcomes 6 years later. I hope this helps families recognize that early and sustained high level of texting might be problematic for adolescents. I hope families can have conversations about healthy media use through childhood and adolescence.”