Notes on the Generation Gap

by Jon Mandle on October 28, 2010

According to this Nielsen study, American teens between 13-17 years old are sending or receiving, on average, 3,339 texts per month, and teen girls send or receive 4,050 per month. (Obviously, this is among teens with cell phones.) It’s hard to believe that the average is distorted by a minority of massive users – that’s already a text every 7 to 9 minutes across the whole waking day. Of course, I could be wrong about how much they sleep. On the other hand, the study was conducted between April and June, 2010, so at least some of them were presumably in school – not that this necessarily eliminates all opportunities to text, I know, but it must cut down on them somewhat, right? I mean, we’re talking about high school, not college, here.

{ 43 comments }

1

cs 10.28.10 at 3:58 pm

So each text sent from one teenager to another counts as two for the purpose of this study? (One sent, one received.)

2

Anon 10.28.10 at 4:05 pm

As someone who interacts with high school students on a regular basis, I actually would have thought the average was higher than this. There are many students who have no difficulty in sending 500-1,000 messages per day.

3

Salient 10.28.10 at 4:14 pm

It’s hard to believe that the average is distorted by a minority of massive users – that’s already a text every 7 to 9 minutes across the whole waking day.

Not so hard for me to believe. In one half-hour text conversation, Sprint says I burned through 90+ texts sent or received (and as cs notes, perhaps we should halve the number, as the amount ‘sent or received’ are also ‘sent or received’ by the other party). They’re like IM messages or twitter tweets, individual lines of conversation. Heavy users could probably hit a thousand in a weekend day…

4

cj 10.28.10 at 4:30 pm

And here I thought my daughter’s 1,500 – 2,000 texts/month was a tad bit excessive.
Thank goodness for the unlimited family text plan!

5

bw 10.28.10 at 4:50 pm

I am guessing you don’t have a teenager. My daughter is below the mean, but it is amazing to watch a teenager send and receive texts in high volume in a short period.

6

djw 10.28.10 at 5:00 pm

I just saw that. It’s absolutely staggering. What a living hell my life would be if I had that kind of text message volume. My cell phone makes a non-trivial contribution to my utility, but I’d flush it down the toilet after a few days of that kind of text volume and never look back. Send me a postcard if it’s important.

(Jon, I’m guessing school might actually increase text volume, because for several hours a day they’re in a position where their ability to talk verbally is limited, but they can probably substitute with clandestine texting. But then, I have no idea; I’m not a teenager–a fact I’m usually greatful for, but much moreso than usual today)

7

ejh 10.28.10 at 5:02 pm

I suppose if you think about it, reading thousands of texts is almost like reading a book.

8

cj 10.28.10 at 5:39 pm

it is amazing to watch a teenager send and receive texts in high volume in a short period.

LOL! Watching her texting with 3-4 other girls (some of them in the same room with her) simultaneously is something to behold.

Yet, when I have the audacity to ask her how she’s doing today, it takes all the energy she can muster to eek out the word “Fine.”

9

Kaveh 10.28.10 at 6:07 pm

The thing that really turns me off to texting is just how inconvenient it is to input text into a cellphone, compared to typing on a proper keyboard. I doubt even the most adept cellphone users can come close to my keyboard typing speed. And on second thought maybe that’s part of the attraction–like a friend once observed about eating pistachios, they wouldn’t be half as addictive if you could just scoop handfuls of them into your mouth. You savor them more because you eat them one-by-one, and the mechanical act of taking off the shells is satisfying. Maybe it’s the same with texting–there’s something relaxing about diluting the flood of information with a rote mechanical act.

10

Salient 10.28.10 at 6:16 pm

Yet, when I have the audacity to ask her how she’s doing today, it takes all the energy she can muster to eek out the word “Fine.”

The trick is to ask via text message. ;-)

11

bh 10.28.10 at 6:21 pm

9: I really think it’s simpler than that. All those devices have as much keyboard as they can fit, and have been trending away from the three-letters-per-number thing for a long time. It’s just that, at this point, you can’t fit a laptop in your pocket.

And at least in my experience, for short messages — which are 99% of them — with some practice, the reduced keyboards really aren’t a burden. I’m sure they’re still slower on average than a full-sized keyboard, but it’s hard to notice when the whole operation only takes a few seconds.

On the other hand, if you imagine that slight disadvantage over many 1000s of texts…

12

Alex R 10.28.10 at 6:33 pm

True story: I was talking to a neighbor with a teenage daughter who had been busted for texting in class. The neighbor printed out the last month’s messages for the daughter, which came to the astonishing to me number of 20,000. (Apparently she has had the phone confiscated by the parents, more for the content of the messages than the volume, but that’s another story…)

13

Kaveh 10.28.10 at 6:54 pm

@11 Yeah, I even have a smartphone now, with qwerty keyboard and everything. I guess what I’m thinking about more is the choice to send texts rather than voicechatting. Like the oft-remarked on habit of American teenagers to use fillers like “like” that started 20-odd years ago, or the habit of sitting around and chatting while eating pumpkin or melon seeds (popular in the Middle East), people like to dilute their communication (and other sensory input) with mechanical, non-narrative filler. I would say it’s a way of dealing with information overload, but that would make it sound like it satisfies a need that only came into existence recently, which I don’t think is the case. I think it’s more like the “muscular bonding” that comes from group dances and military marching exercises.

14

billikin 10.28.10 at 9:02 pm

Surely a JAMA article on Text Talon will come out soon. ;)

15

garymar 10.28.10 at 9:59 pm

American teenagers to use fillers like “like” that started 20-odd years ago

Well, I was saying “like” in the 60’s as a teenager, so the usage is at least 40 years old.

And of course, all the teenage girls were hogging the family phone back then too.

16

JanieM 10.28.10 at 10:58 pm

This:

And of course, all the teenage girls were hogging the family phone back then too

helps answer this:

I suppose if you think about it, reading thousands of texts is almost like reading a book.

I don’t think texting is much like reading a book, it’s like being on the phone with your friends after school for all the time you can grab before your dad says to get the hell off the phone, you were with her/him all day long, what else could you possibly have to say?

A lot, actually. ;)

I have long found it bemusing that kids text so much instead of just talking on the phone, but I can think of two things that texting allows that talking out loud doesn’t: 1) no one else (parents, teachers, other kids) can hear what you’re saying to each other, and 2) you can text with any number of people at the same time. And they do.

17

JanieM 10.28.10 at 11:02 pm

And p.s. I doubt the numbers are very different from how many conversational turns many people take in a given day. I once tried to figure out how many typed pages a two-hour conversation would fill. I don’t remember what I came up with, but it was a lot of pages.

18

ScentOfViolets 10.28.10 at 11:11 pm

Yet, when I have the audacity to ask her how she’s doing today, it takes all the energy she can muster to eek out the word “Fine.”

EXACTLY!!!!!

And “audacity” was exactly the right word. I don’t know how many different messages a single glare can convey, but my daughter has already mastered a dozen or so.

19

ndg 10.28.10 at 11:16 pm

I think that it probably is distorted by a relatively small percentage of massive users. It’s hard to achieve big volume on a little Nokia feature phone, but all too easy if you’re using an interface like the iPhone’s, which presents SMS messages in the same way as a chat log from ICQ or MSN or the IRC of yore — which is to say, it encourages people sending super-short conversational messages like “lol” every 30 seconds for an hour.

And re: the first comment about a message being counted once when it’s sent and once when it’s received, some messages will be counted many more times than twice (when someone sends a message to a dozen friends at once).

20

soullite 10.29.10 at 12:05 am

I easily sent that many IM’s when I was that age, and I needed a whole damned computer for that.

21

paulo 10.29.10 at 1:00 am

Isn’t each text message like 10 cents? If so, hat means on average each kid is spending over 300 dollars a month. Is there a phone plan I don’t know about here or is the recession really over?

22

Matt McIrvin 10.29.10 at 2:10 am

A text is one line of dialogue, and they’re having rapid conversations. A text message every few seconds is easy to produce, which is hundreds an hour. It’s not like composing a long email every six minutes, more like IRC or AIM. And you’d be surprised how fast thumb-typing can be on a decent QWERTY layout.

And, yes, some of these kids are on flat-rate SMS plans. It’s not always 10 or 15 cents a pop any more. For a while the great attraction of the Sidekick (RIP) was that you could use IM instead for a flat data rate, but it’s less of an advantage now.

23

gxs 10.29.10 at 2:46 am

While the numbers a bit astonishing regardless, one thing to keep in mind – especially in the case of teenage girls who message with their friends – is that if they text 5 of their friends at the same time, to the carriers this counts as 5 text messages. If they respond, that’s 5 messages back.

I suspect these numbers are tad bit inflated for reasons like this.

24

Clay Shirky 10.29.10 at 3:30 am

Just a note on communications patterns: It is _not_ hard to believe the average is not way above the media because of high use. Indeed, were that not the case, texting would be the only user-driven communication medium in which the strong divergence of mode, median, and mean _didn’t_ abide by that otherwise universal norm.

Similarly, X texts every 8 minutess across a waking day is the wrong metric, because texting is as bursty a medium as any other.

25

Matt McIrvin 10.29.10 at 4:00 am

I think some people in this thread are also imagining every one of these thousands of received texts appearing as a sudden interruption in the kid’s daily routine. That’s not how it is at all, because of the conversational burstiness.

26

Britta 10.29.10 at 4:59 am

A friend of the family once received a $2,000 cell phone bill, and upon further investigation, it turned out to be a combination of some somewhat shady practices on the phone company and his 16 year old daughter, who he worked out sent out what averaged to one text every two minutes for an entire month (about 22,000).

27

Leo Sigh 10.29.10 at 6:15 am

As a former English teacher in Thailand, I’m happy to say many Thai schools now forbid mobile phones at school. There’s no need for them (if there’s an emergency, the parents call the school) and it’s about time American schools saw this. They go to school for an education, not to spend all day texting to friends. No wonder so many Americans are so poorly educated compared to much of the rest of the world :(

28

dan 10.29.10 at 7:43 am

Yet, when I have the audacity to ask her how she’s doing today, it takes all the energy she can muster to eek out the word “Fine.”

hint: It’s because she doesn’t want to talk to you
2nd hint: because you’re her parent

29

tps12 10.29.10 at 12:17 pm

Well I never thought I’d see the day when somebody stands there screaming into that “tele-phone” contraption for minutes on end. As if they were talking to an actual person!

30

ScentOfViolets 10.29.10 at 2:37 pm

A text message every few seconds is easy to produce, which is hundreds an hour. It’s not like composing a long email every six minutes, more like IRC or AIM. And you’d be surprised how fast thumb-typing can be on a decent QWERTY layout.

I’m a pretty fair typist myself (back in the day, a one-semester touch-typing class fulfilled a requirement), but as an old guy I’ve got to wonder how fast these kids can really go. Compression?[1] Swype? I don’t think my daughter uses either. And since this would be one of the prime markets for a chording keyboard (I would think), I’m guessing that in the end they’re not very practical except in specialty niches.

[1]My daughter says that nobody she knows uses much in the way of abbreviations, but also that nobody is particularly picky about spelling.

31

y81 10.29.10 at 3:12 pm

@21 & @26: You or your friends need to change plans. In fact, part of being a parent of teenage girls is figuring out what plan will accomodate your daughter’s desired texting volume most economically. (I think my daughter’s is more like 2000 than 3000 per month.)

Like many other consumer companies (e.g., credit card issuers, health clubs), a good piece of the phone companies’ revenue comes from dinging consumers who misestimate their future usage. This can leave you with a whopping bill, which in turn leads to yelling at the teenage daughter, which leads to an outraged sense of injustice on her part, because she isn’t texting more heavily than her friends, etc. Downward spiral, no communication between father and daughter, unhealthy compensatory relationships with other males, teen pregnancy, heroin addiction . . . all because you didn’t get the right cell phone plan.

32

Walt 10.29.10 at 3:15 pm

That was funny, y81.

33

matth 10.29.10 at 3:38 pm

Texting has some other advantages that are worth noting:
– It’s face-saving. The person who sends you a text can’t tell if you got it or what you’re doing. If you’re busy, you can just not reply. (You also don’t have to answer the phone, but if you don’t answer the phone, you won’t know what the other person wanted. With texts, you get the best of all worlds.)
– It’s non-disruptive. I’ll send texts even if I think the recipient might be busy, but I might not call.
– Precisely because there’s no strong norm that you have to reply to every text, you can send people messages that you wouldn’t call them for. The recipient gets the message and maybe gets a chuckle, but at a lower cost in time and effort than actually having a conversation.

34

roac 10.29.10 at 4:25 pm

Given that courtship among young people today is apparently conducted almost entirely by manipulation of little tiny keypads, doesn’t evolutionary theory predict that within a very few generations human beings will all have little tiny fingertips?

35

Kaveh 10.29.10 at 4:36 pm

@27 Probably a good chance you’ve seen this, but for anyone who hasn’t, here’s a Thai teacher getting tough on a cell phone user:

36

cj 10.29.10 at 5:53 pm

Here’s a good post on generational/cultural differences from a college professor regarding a sample essay he handed out to his freshman composition class. The essay was an autobiographical story about corresponding with his then-beloved through the mail:

http://www.amptoons.com/blog/archives/2010/10/28/on-digital-technology-and-the-generation-gap/

The students’ reactions are classic:

“Wait. You wrote letters?” one of my students asked. “How could you wait that long for a response?”

“Damn!” another one chimed in. “You two must really have had focus.”

My personal favorite:

“But so much will have happened between the time the letter was sent and the time it was read. How did you remember what you wrote about?”

37

Shelley 10.29.10 at 9:02 pm

It’s the junk food of communication: fills an empty place but doesn’t really nourish. Five seconds later, the place is empty again.

38

Salient 10.29.10 at 9:21 pm

It’s the junk food of communication

Nah, it’s the GPS of social navigation ;-)

39

Matt McIrvin 10.29.10 at 10:16 pm

Talking is like that too; it’s so unsatisfying, ten seconds after somebody tells me something I have to say something right back to them.

40

Sebastian 10.30.10 at 5:45 pm

The worst part about writing letters is that you didn’t keep a copy yourself!

41

Teri 10.31.10 at 4:48 am

When my younger son (14 at the time, now 15)got his cell phone we had already learned with his older brother to go with the unlimited texting plan. But when we got the first bill, with only 15 days of his having a phone he had an astonishing 10956 text messages. Of those, 9654 were from his girl friend. They started at 6:36 am when he gets up to get read to go to school and stopped after midnight most nights. We ended up moving his phone charger into the living room so he could no longer text after bedtime the number came down. When talking with him and his friends during a drive (they were texting each other, as well as other friends not in the car) I discovered that most text during changing of classes, lunch and the bus rides to and from school. Most are two and three word responses, comments or reactions to things. Pictures also play a large part of the “conversation” as well. Since the majority of his friends have had cell phones since middle school (we are rather draconian in what we consider “proper” for a teenager) he had some catching up to do in terms of learning how to text. I and my husband have learned in self defense to text our sons in order to stay in the loop. We have discovered the great utility of it during large events where we are seperated to co-ordinated meetings, comment upon events, alert one another to some interesting things at large venues. It is also handy to text pick up a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread to keep the teenage hordes fed!

42

Mario Diana 10.31.10 at 1:11 pm

As someone who has spent some time teaching in high school and middle school classrooms, I just want to point out that apparently none of these four thousand texts is along the lines of, “can u tell me what teh homework 4 tonite is?”

43

Brussel Sprout 10.31.10 at 7:42 pm

Interesting that most of the examples here refer to daughters…but …. I have a 13 year old son with no phone of his own. I know, child cruelty, report us immediately to the NSPCA.

He asked to borrow my phone one afternoon to set up a meeting via text with some friends. In five minutes, they had each texted each other something like 20 messages – i.e. 50-60 exchanges. I’m on a pay as you go payment plan because I scarcely ever use my phone – a 50 euro top up lasts 3-4 months. The total cost to me of the frenzied texting was about 3 euros in total, and most of the texts were 3-5 words.

Now, I remember well enough, distant though it is, my own adolescence and the totally vacant maunderings I used to indulge in with friends over the phone. Teenagers haven’t changed, but texting and IMing and Fbk make all that self-indulgent vacuousness much easier to sustain and prolong.

BTW, my son will have to earn the money to buy his own phone and payments. Having a record of the texts from this little episode, I am not spending my money on supporting a texting habit.

LOL to Mario…as a teacher, I’ve noticed that too.

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