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Stop Texting and Read This — The Thumb You Save May Be Your Own

Statistics can be used to inform or to mislead, and sometimes they can shock.  See if this statistic isn’t shocking:  In the fourth quarter of 2008 American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages per month.  That, dear friends, is nothing to LOL about.

That statistic comes from The New York Times.  In “Texting May Be Taking a Toll,” reporter Katie Hafner offers a view into the lives of American teens.  They are fanatical texters.  As Hafner reports, “They do it late at night when their parents are asleep. They do it in restaurants and while crossing busy streets. They do it in the classroom with their hands behind their back. They do it so much their thumbs hurt.”

Authorities now blame excessive texting for sleep deprivation, distraction in school, poor grades, and even repetitive stress injuries.  These teens are texting while they should be sleeping, and they are sleeping with the cell phone set to vibrate so that they can respond to texts from friends without waking parents.

The world of text messaging is still largely the domain of the young.  While adults increasingly use texting for communication, it is teenagers and college students who are the Olympian users of the technology.  In the time it takes a parent to type “Did you do your homework?” on their phone’s awkward keypad, their adolescent offspring can text a few friends and keep in touch with several peers.  The new digital dialect of texting is largely an adolescent development.  Now, college professors complain that incoming freshmen try to use the lingo of texting on school assignments.

As Hafner reports, some teenagers report symptoms such as painful cramping in thumbs.  She cites Professor Peter W. Johnson of the University of Washington, who advised:  “Based on our experiences with computer users, we know intensive repetitive use of the upper extremities can lead to musculoskeletal disorders, so we have some reason to be concerned that too much texting could lead to temporary or permanent damage to the thumbs.”

The kids are also finding ways to text during class, even though most schools forbid the use of cell phones in the classroom.  One boy said he just pretended to be getting something out of his backpack.

Sherry Turkle, one of the most insightful analysts of digital culture, goes so far as to argue that texting is changing the way American adolescents develop.  Instead of growing into independence and developing life skills, teenagers are texting mom several times a day, asking questions about decisions they should be learning to make.

On the other hand, texting also allows teens to be in almost constant and unbroken communication with peers, largely outside of parental control or knowledge.  To be disconnected from the cell phone is to become a digital non-person for a period.

Of course, many parents enable this obsession by purchasing contracts that offer unlimited text messages.  Many (perhaps most) of these same parents never monitor the messages or the amount of attention their adolescent is devoting to texting.

Christian parents bear the responsibility to monitor, supervise, and limit the digital exposure of their children.  Something is seriously amiss when the average teenager is sending 2,272 text messages a month.  There is no way that teens can be paying adequate attention to homework, to reading, to conversation with family members, and to the interior life of the soul while listening for the phone to vibrate with a new text message every few minutes.

Teens should not be allowed to sleep with cell phones in the bedroom, and parents need to set clear parameters for the use of phones for both voice calls and text messages.  Commonsense rules will go a long way toward restoring sanity.

Who can doubt that this has something to do with the epidemic of distractedness that plagues us all?  Cramping thumbs may be a leading physical phenomenon, but distracted minds and unquiet souls are the spiritual phenomena.

Let’s be honest, we adults have plenty to answer for when it comes to our own digital obsessions, but most parents are not sneaking text messages while feigning activity in a backpack.

Remember that number — 2,272 texts per month.  That statistic is already out of date.  The new average might be boosted by your teenager down the hall.  Does someone you know have cramping thumbs?