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 nature of 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

shygye75 12/5/2012 | 5:23:38 PM
re: Does Communication Suffer When We Text?

Young people have been messing up the world for a few thousand years now. When will they ever learn?

sarahthomas1011 12/5/2012 | 5:23:38 PM
re: Does Communication Suffer When We Text?

Not sure I understand the religious differences between texting and talking...but yeah, I agree that it's changing how we communicate, and there's a lot of good and bad that comes with that. Maybe HD voice and RCS will bring people back to the phone call, but I doubt it will be a mass change.

ibarrera 12/5/2012 | 5:23:38 PM
re: Does Communication Suffer When We Text?

As usual, this is a spin on how bad texting is. And I agree, as I had to deal with a couple of misunderstandings thanks to what the article described (lack of voice tones), other types of expressions well, won't work on a telephone call either. Note that for some reason the research went from voice calls slowing down, to the importance of face-to-face.

Now, once you and your interlocutor have overcome the issue with certain expresions (sarcasm, irony, jokes, etc). The text message tends to be very good as it doesn't require immediate response (it's not as intrusive) and you can very well take your time to properly phrase it. If you take the time to phrase your messages, they can become very polite and powerful to convey information that otherwise on a phone call may not sound as well.

On the other hand, none of them replace the other. There are certain times for face to face meetings, others that require full attention, and others with lower priority that can as well use a text message. And given that teenagers normally don't have extremely high priority issues, I'd agree that it makes sense in teenagers to see the low priority interrupt being used the most.

DCITDave 12/5/2012 | 5:23:37 PM
re: Does Communication Suffer When We Text?

I don't think the article was a spin on anything. It was just an opportunity for us to pause and discuss how we communicate.

Anyway, I love your point about taking the time to write a text correctly. What's interesting is that the immediacy of texting sometimes fights against that which would allow someone to be a better communicator.

If I want to exchange info or find out some bit of data, I text. If I really want to know how someone is doing, I call. But I realize that's not normal.


cyberian_huskey 12/5/2012 | 5:23:35 PM
re: Does Communication Suffer When We Text?

I see everyone's point. It forces people either to learn how to be great writers, or else accept poor writing as a common denominator. It takes some talent to project feelings through writing, yet it is a very Victoria concept. Reading and writing has made a comeback! Get out the quill pen, just kidding. As we know, people are not raising the bar in writing skills!

Anyway, as for myself, I find it important to reflect. I have a touch of ASD and I always found to be taken advantage of in situations of communication where I wasn't given time to reflect on all the verbal cues. Therefore texting is a lifesaver for me.

I only see a problem where people are too lazy to write, they would rather just "say it". and also it's dangerous to walk and text.

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