“Excessive texting” is the latest alarming teenage trend that the New York Times is onto. Readers have kept a story headlined “Texting May Be Taking a Toll” high on the Times’ Most Read list for three days now.
If you’re looking for the kind of story newspaper editors love, you can never fail with the “crazy things the kids are up to now” genre. (Thursday’s “Hugging is out of control among teens” story makes this a banner week.) But they go even more nuts for a “technology is dangerous and threatens our very humanity” story — and so the text-menace story is a double whammy.
Kids are sending a mind-boggling 80 text messages a day, a survey found. And it’s really bad for them and for society!
The texting story claims that doctors and psychologists worry that excessive texting is leading teens to anxiety, bad grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation. Also, it turns out, they’re texting their parents, of all people, and that’s hampering their development into autonomous adults.
Serious damage may be happening to their thumbs, too. At least the hugging story only has worried school administrators talking about clogging school hallways and an “unserious” academic atmosphere.
Not surprisingly, the story has inspired loud snickers across the web. Gawker responded with, “Wait, aren’t our opposable thumbs what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom? In that case, could the text messaging/thumb destruction epidemic currently sweeping the nation eventually lead to the complete breakdown of all human society?”
The MentalFloss blog posted, “OMG, teenagers are overdoing something?! They’re getting cramped thumbs from too much technological twiddling? Say it ain’t so! (We used to call this Nintendo Thumb back in the day.)" The post turned off the sarcasm to point out wisely that “teens eventually learn to moderate their own behavior, and most come through it without impaired thumbs.”
Science blogs seem equally puzzled that the New York Times would trumpet this news: One asked, “Do people remember stuff about how widespread usage of telephones were going to cause problems too?”
Maybe it’s a good thing that the most eloquent rebuttal of this article has been on the New York Times website itself, in a post by Lisa Belkin on the Motherlode blog. “Like everything else in parenting and in life, we should aim to mitigate the abuse of a technology, not mourn its very existence,” Belkin says.
That nails the problem of not just this article but an entire outdated strain of mournful, fearful thinking about technology that is still alive and well at newspapers like the Times. And of course, it’s hard not to detect fear and mourning under the surface, too: Technology is taking away the job security of the very people who write and edit these articles.
But the purveyors of this stuff might feel better if they checked in with the latest brain research. UCLA’s Dr. Gary Small, for example, has a cool book called "iBrain" that explains that yes, using new technology is altering the structure of our brains — just as it did when, say, we first started eating with forks.
There are good and bad things about this — face-to-face social skills, for example, erode when a majority of social interactions happen virtually. But just as human beings were intelligent enough to develop these technologies, we’re also intelligent enough to come up with solutions to our problems.