Texting compared with talking:
While texting is the major way teens communicate, it isn’t always the preferred method when talking with different people. When asked to choose, teens were clear about which modes of communication they preferred for talking with different people in their lives. For friends, who for most teens make up the bulk of their conversational partners, text messaging was dominant, with 67% of text-using teens saying they are more likely to use their cell phone to text a friend than to call. Still, a significant minority of text-using teens – 28% — said they preferred talking to their friends rather than texting them. Another 5% of texting teens said they were equally likely to call or text.
Conversely, 78% of text-using teens say they are more likely to use voice communication when they needed to talk to their parents. Just 18% of teens said that they were most likely to text their parents when reaching out and 4% were equally likely to call or text. As a high school boy in our focus groups noted, "I call my parents mostly, more so than text them, and then if, like, with my friends, if we need to get like set plans or something, we’ll kind of like call because it’s kind of like a lot less time than texting back and forth and waiting."
Text-using teens are split on their preferred method for talking to siblings or other family members; 55% of these teens say they were most likely to talk by voice with brothers, sisters and other family, while 38% say they are most apt to text with other family members. Another 4% say they are likely to use both methods to reach out to family.
Parents and siblings aren’t uniform in their preferred modes of communication. Many teens in the focus groups spoke of texting one parent while calling another. "Well, my brother at college, we text a lot during the day and then my mom hates texting so I always call her," explained a high school girl. "And then my dad thinks he’s cool when he texts so he always texts me."
Texting edges out voice calling as the primary way these teens contacted significant others. A bit less than half of texting teens (42%) who have a boyfriend or girlfriend say they primarily text one another, and another quarter (26%) say they mostly talk with their significant other. Just 9% of teens say they use both, and an additional 7% said they use neither text nor talk to primarily communicate with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Overall, about 22% of teens say they do not have a significant other.
Girls are more likely to text friends and parents than boys.
When it comes to choosing a mode of communication to use when reaching out to friends, girls are more likely than boys to text their friends, with 74% of text-using girls saying they primarily text their friends, compared with 59% of text-using boys. Younger teens ages 12-13 were more apt than older teens to say they use both methods of communication rather than privileging either text or talk. Teens with dial up connections at home are also more likely to text their friends, with 81% saying they primarily text, compared with 65% of teens with a home broadband connection.
Girls who text are more likely to say they primarily text with their parents or guardian than boys, with 22% of girls texting parents compared with 13% of boys. Nearly 84% of boys mostly talk with parents, while three-quarters (73%) of girls say the same. Teens with parents who have less than a high school education or who are Hispanic are also less likely to say they text with parents than those with more education or white teens.
Texting or talking with siblings or significant others shows little variation by sex, age, race or socio-economic status. The one exception is that teens in lower income households are slightly less likely than teens from wealthier families to say they primarily text their significant other.
Why texting is preferred over talking:
There are several reasons that teens would choose texting over talking. Texting allows for asynchronous interaction and it is more discrete than making voice calls. Texting can be a buffer when dealing with parents and can be safer when interacting with potential romantic partners. Finally, it is a simple way to keep up with friends when there is nothing special that needs to be communicated.
Since texting is asynchronous, it does not necessarily command the attention of a conversational partner. This means that a teen can send a message and then simply await the answer. The person receiving it can deal with the message as their situation allows. It gives them the possibility to interlace the communication into other parts of their lives. A middle school boy describes this when he says:
- I usually text my parents, as well. Like, I guess although I’m not really supposed to in school I’ll just start texting them. I’ll just be like, ‘Hey mom come pick me up, this is happening,’ Or just, ‘Hey mom I forgot this can you drop it off?’ I don’t use the calling that much.
Texting is used in situations when it is discourteous, or even prohibited, to talk on the cell phone. For example, when teens are at the movies, in a public setting — or indeed during the focus groups held for this project — it can be socially awkward to conduct a voice call. In some cases texting can be a type of advanced note-passing to people who are close by or in the same room. The fact that texts mask the conversation means that they can serve as a "back channel" for interaction. When asked if she ever texted to people who were sitting nearby, a middle school girl said:
- I only do that when it’s like, you’re on a double date or something, and you’re like, ‘Oh how’s it going with your guy?’, And they’re like, ‘Oh I need to get out of here he’s so annoying.’ Like you’re hanging out in a huge group and you have a problem with one of the girls and you text your other friend. That’s the only time I do it. It’s usually girls that do it to each other. But guys know when you do it, they’re like, ‘You’re texting each other aren’t you?’
In other cases, texting is used to get around rules and for cheating.
Interviewer: . . . What about cheating? Have you heard of people using their phones for cheating?
High school boy: Yes.
Interviewer: How do they do that?
High school boy: They text like, ‘What is number 15?" "This is the question."
High school girl: There is this thing Cha Cha and you can text it any question and it will give you an answer.
Texting can be used to cover one’s tracks. Since obviously there is no sound when texting, teens can text their parents when the background noise of their location would give away too much information on their whereabouts. A high school boy described how his mother saw through this ruse:
- I would sometimes, I would text my mom, like, she, like, knows. She says to me, ‘Sometimes I know you’re doing something wrong if you’re texting me.’ She says she knows that, usually she’s right if I tell her I’m supposed to be somewhere else. If she calls she can hear the background, if she calls she says, ‘Who are you with? Who are you talking to? Where are you?’ If I’m texting it doesn’t give the location as much [because] she can’t hear the background.
Along the same lines, texting can be used as a buffer. Since there is not synchronous interaction and since it is somewhat more difficult to construct a text (often more so for parents than for teens), teens use text messaging when they have to break bad news or make an uncomfortable request of their parents. A high school girl described this when she said:
- I usually text my mom whenever I want to ask her something or tell her something bad. That way I don’t have to hear her yelling at me, like, give me a reason why I shouldn’t go, or why she doesn’t want me to go. ‘Cause she doesn’t text, she just, like, writes short answers. I usually text her everything else I want her to know so I don’t have to hear [her voice].
The fact that texting is slower than calling means there is not as much a need for spontaneity. When texting with potential boyfriends or girlfriends, the delay afforded by texting means that the teen has more control over the pace and tone of the interaction. A teen might edit comments and even consult with friends as to the best response. This issue can arise in mundane interactions like disagreements with friends, as well as in romantic situations.
Some teens simply prefer to text with friends, for the clarity that words on the screen can bring, and the removal of the awkward moments found in phone conversations. This is the way one high school boy explained it:
- Some people are bad at talking on the phone, like some people just really want silence and don’t really want to talk. Like when I text I can just say what I want to say and I don’t have to constantly be talking. If I have nothing else to say then I will just stop texting you. Or if we just run out of stuff, we just stop texting. Whereas on the phone you attempt to just keep on …I mean on the phone, you always try to make the conversation go longer—if you are talking to somebody, not if you are calling to ask for something. So, it depends on who I am talking to.
Some teens also report choosing texting over calling because it gives them more time to craft a message or respond in tough situations. As a high school girl noted:
- It just occurred to me, I don’t particularly use, but I know some people who do: If they know that they have to talk about something that might be a little tough. There is an argument with a parent or something like that. Texting can be easier because you can think about how you want to respond, you are not just like on the spot on the phone when somebody drops some like big news and like, ‘Ah, ah, I don’t know how to respond to this.’ Texting will give you some time.
Finally, texting is an easy way to keep up with the flow of everyday life. Several teens noted that to call means that it is something that is important. However, if the teens are simply checking in with one another, texting is an easy way to touch base. A middle school boy said, "If I’m texting, it’s just people I hang out with everyday." And a high school girl said, "I text more than I talk. . . like my family I call, but its like friends and stuff text me."