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Teen Texting Soars; Will Social Skills Suffer?

For America's teens, cell phones have become a vital social tool and texting the preferred mode of communication, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

The report finds that 75 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 now have cell phones, up from 45 percent in 2004. And the number who say they text-message daily has shot up to 54 percent from 38 percent in just the past 18 months.

"There's now an expectation that teens will contact each other via text, and they expect a kind of constant, frequent response," says the Pew Center's Amanda Lenhart, one of the study's authors.

The survey, which was conducted with scholars from the University of Michigan, finds the typical American teen sends 50 texts a day, and a sizable number send double that or more. Some teens text their parents, though most youngsters say they prefer to speak with them by phone.

The Battle Over Cell Phones

This rapid rise in texting has led to confrontation as parents and schools try to control cell phone use. The report finds that parents are trying a variety of ways, from monitoring content to limiting the time of day or number of minutes children may talk or text. Many parents surveyed -- 62 percent -- say they've taken away their child's cell phone as punishment, though Lenhart says this can backfire: Parents often give children cell phones to keep track of their whereabouts, and don't like giving up that easy access.

At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland last week, students were tapping away on their phones before they even reached the exit doors after classes let out. Sierra Koenick, 17, said she and her friends talk about "everything."

"What's going on, or meet me here, or something," she said. Then she added, laughing, "Usually they're dumb texts, not even worth it."

Koenick says her grandfather once analyzed her monthly bill and estimated that she sends 300 texts a day.

In front of school, junior Daniel Epstein and his girlfriend lounge on the steps, each with a cell phone at their fingertips. Epstein says he once tried to limit his texting by keeping his phone on silent. But when he checked messages at the end of the day, he had 10 from a friend who desperately needed a computer password.

"So sometimes there's really something urgent that you have to respond to," Epstein says.

Surely, a dilemma that many an office worker with a crack-berry can identify with.

Texting Away At School

The Pew report finds that most schools ban texting in class, but allow it in the halls or at lunch. A small minority ban phones outright, but the study finds that neither that, nor parental controls, seem to have much influence on the amount of texting teens do.

At schools where cell phones are forbidden, 58 percent of students with mobile phones say they've sent a text message during class.

In Los Angeles, Harvard-Westlake High School considered an outright ban last year. Nini Halkett has taught history there for two decades and laments the bad spelling and writing that seems to worsen as texting becomes more widespread. As her students are increasingly immersed in texting, Halkett also finds them increasingly shy and awkward in person.

"They can get up the courage to ask you for [a deadline] extension on the computer," she says. "But they won't come and speak to you face-to-face about it. And that worries me, in terms of their ability -- particularly once they get out in the workplace -- to interact with people."

At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, several students -- -- some who embrace texting and one who says he avoids it -- voice the same concern. As in Pew focus groups, the teens admit they use texting to avoid confrontation or uncomfortable situations.

But researcher Lenhart says they are also strategic about when not to text, especially with parents:

"We heard from teens who said, 'When I want the yes, I'll go to the phone because my parents can hear my voice, and I can wheedle and charm them, and that's how I'm going to get what I want.' "

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

American teenagers say e-mail is passe. And talking on the phone? Well, that's for parents. With friends, they prefer to let their fingers do the talking -actually, their thumbs.

New research out today finds three out of four teenagers now have cell phones, and they're using them to send lots of text messages.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

(Soundbite of conversation)

JENNIFER LUDDEN: As classes let out at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, students are tapping on their phones before they even reach the exit.

The Pew Research Center and the University of Michigan find the average teen sends about 50 texts a day, a third send double that. But even they have nothing on 17-year-old Sierra Koenick. Her grandfather once analyzed her phone bill. The total: 300 texts a day. What about?

Ms. SIERRA KOENICK (Student, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School): I mean, talking about everything. What's going on, or hey, or meet me here, or something. Usually they're actually dumb texts, not even worth it. But...

LUDDEN: But she likes sending them anyway. Asking when do you text feels like a dumb question. The answer is all the time. In fact, as I interview Koenick and two friends, they keep texting while we talk. Koenick says people often use texting to chat with or about someone who's right there.

Ms. KOENICK: Like, if it's somebody in front of you and you don't want them to know you're talking about them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Okay, so this makes me wonder if you're texting about me.

Ms. KOENICK: No, I'm not. I'm not texting them.

LUDDEN: Outside, junior Daniel Epstein and his girlfriend lounge on the steps, each with a cell phone at their fingertips. I ask Epstein about efforts to limit his texting and hear the kind of dilemma that will sound familiar to many an office worker with a crack Berry.

Mr. DANIEL EPSTEIN (Student, Bethesda Chevy Chase High School): Like, I used to keep my phone on silent. And then, you know, like at the end of the day I check it and then, like, I have, like, 10 text messages from this one person saying, like, I really need you to give me this password or something. So sometimes it's like something urgent that you have to really quickly respond to.

Ms. AMANDA LENHART (Senior Research Specialist, The Internet & American Life Project, Pew Research Center): They're really weaving this into their day. It is in some ways for teens a lot like breathing.

LUDDEN: Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Center says the report finds parents and schools struggling to set limits on teen texting. Nearly two-thirds of parents say they've taken a child's cell phone away as punishment. But that can backfire. Parents say they like using phones to track a child's whereabouts and for logistics.

As for school limits, Lenhart says they don't have much impact.

Ms. LENHART: They still bring their phones to school. We found that 58 percent of teens who go to schools where the phone is forbidden say they've sent a text message in class.

LUDDEN: In Los Angeles, Harvard-Westlake High School considered an outright ban last year. Nini Halkett has taught history there for two decades. As she sees her students increasingly immersed in texting, she finds them increasingly shy and awkward in personal encounters.

Ms. NINI HALKETT (Teacher, Harvard-Westlake High School): They can get up the courage to ask you for an extension on a test or something like that on the computer, but they won't come and speak to you face to face about it. And that worries me in terms of their ability to, you know - particularly once they get out on in the workplace - their ability to interact with people.

LUDDEN: At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, several students actually voiced the same concern. And as in Pew focus groups, teens admitted to using texting to avoid confrontation with each other or their parents - say, if you're already at the movie theater and want your mom's permission to see the film.

But researcher Amanda Lenhart says teens are also strategic about when not to text.

Ms. LENHART: We heard from teens who said, you know, when I want the yes, I'll go to the phone because my parents can hear my voice and I can kind of wheedle and I can charm them, and that's how I'm going to get what I want.

LUDDEN: The art of conversation still alive and well.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: Do you put limits on your teen's texting? Do you think texting hurts your child's social skills? You can tell us at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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