Does Communication Suffer When We Text?

As people start to text more and talk less, experts weigh in on how we're changing as a society and whether the telcos have a chance to provide more education

Denise Culver, Online Research Director

August 17, 2012

5 Min Read
Does Communication Suffer When We Text?

A study released in July by British media regulator Ofcom found that phone calls are being displaced by texts and other e-messages. While the largest majority of this displacement is taking place among 16-to-24-year-olds, the overall time spent talking on the phone declined by 5 percent, despite that overall sales of mobile devices and mobile minutes increased during that time period.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has performed similar research in the United States, finding that about 83 percent of American adults own cellphones. Of the 73 percent of those who used texting, 31 said they preferred texts to talking on the phone, with another 14 percent saying the contact method they prefer depends on the situation, says Aaron Smith, senior research specialist.

“We consistently find that No. 1 benefit of cellphones to users is the ability to be always available or in contact with family members and other people they care about,” Pew's Smith says. “At the same time, they do express feelings of stress at being constantly attached or reachable by the demands of employment. Our respondents see both good and bad impacts of cellphones -- and texting more specifically.”

While these statistics aren’t necessarily surprising -- after all, who hasn’t become accustomed to seeing people walking around staring at screens, thumbs tapping madly, oblivious to everything but the device in hand? -- the reality is that texting is not the same as talking on the phone. Although communication takes place, it is a vastly different type of communication than that which takes place when verbal messages are sent and received.

The difference is important on many levels, including psychological, social political, economic and religious, says Dr. Janet Sternberg, a linguist and professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.

“When humans are together face-to-face, we have access to full range of sensory information: tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, even things like heat and smell of the other person,” Sternberg says. “These non-verbal communication systems provide us with social cues that help us interpret verbal communication, especially more sophisticated communication like humor and sarcasm. But when we mediate communication technologically, most of these social cues are filtered out, and we're left with just words without these additional cues and clues to help us figure out what a person's words really are supposed to mean.

“Comparing voice versus text telephony, voice telephony does have the sound element that text lacks, so with voice telephony, we have at least one extra layer of social cue, in the form of tone of voice, intonation and our sense of how the person is feeling. In text, we lack this. If we only write to each other, we lose track of the nuances provided by these non-verbal systems. And if more people text instead of using voice, greater potential for misunderstanding occurs, as we lose the social cues provided by voice and put more emphasis on the cut-and-dried natureof silent language-based text.”

Lost skills
Perhaps most troubling is the fact that texting is so predominant among the young. Pew’s research shows that cell owners between the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of 109 messages per day, or more than 3,200 texts per month. Sternberg says the result is that young people are not learning skills associated with verbal communications.

“When we talk, we also need to listen, and we also take turns, requiring us to learn patience and to withhold immediate gratification,” she says. “With texting, we don't have to listen or be patient or wait; we send at our convenience. Talking is more intrusive, more invasive and less private, and it demands immediate attention. Texting is more private and can be delayed or postponed. Talking is more immediate, less censored, provides less time to reflect or edit, is more spontaneous and is more intimate. Texting can be groomed, manipulated, composed and edited to give particular impressions, and it is less spontaneous. Voice is more about communication and conversation, while text is more about contact and broadcasting.”

Dr. Scott Campbell, associate professor of communication studies at University of Michigan, says texting also has changed the quality of face-to-face conversations that people do have.

“In-person communication suffers when individuals feel compelled to text while they are in the presence of others,” he says. “For some -- especially young people -- this is not necessarily regarded as a problem, since they consider it normal, even expected. But there are real generational differences here with older adults more accustomed to the communication dynamics we had before mobile phones. This is often where conflict arises at home or in the workplace.”

Reach out and touch someone
The underlying concern with these statistics is that the younger generations that have grown up with mobile phones connected to their thumbs will not be effective communicators -- or even be able to understand what they have inherently lost in terms of the ability to communicate.

Sternberg says mobile carriers have the opportunity to step in and educate their young users, especially by pointing out when and where texting is a valuable option and when it is not.

“To promote voice telephony, carriers should point out what it's good for that texting is not: situations where the conditions do not require silence, where hands-free is helpful,” she says. “Right now, people are used to typing on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking, so texting on phone is just one more typing task. But as more smartphones offer Siri-type voice-activated interfaces, voice-based telephone may make a comeback.

“If people get in the habit of talking to their phones, maybe they'll also use their phones to talk to other people, as well. Voice telephony should focus on what voice does best: immediacy, intimacy, synchronicity, emotion and feelings. Remember that old AT&T commercial, 'Reach Out And Touch Someone'? Voice does that better than text.”

— Denise Culver, Special to Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Denise Culver

Online Research Director

Denise manages Heavy Reading's Thought Leadership Council, which uses a focus group approach to glean insights from CSPs on topics ranging from automation, IoT, 5G, B/OSS transformation, SD-WAN and emerging technologies. Additionally, Denise covers the test and measurement industry as an analyst, focusing on how T&M vendors are addressing telco transformation, as well as the impact that technologies such as IoT are having on service provider networks. Denise also continues to oversee development of Light Reading's Pedia projects, including Virtuapedia and Testapedia. Previously, she was a Contributing Analyst with Heavy Reading for seven years, covering a wide range of areas, including mobile, IP transformation and T&M. Her career in technology journalism began in 1996, and she is a past winner of the American Business Media Association's Jesse Neal Award for editorial achievement. She is a graduate of Texas A&M University.

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