Extreme Texting in the Formative Years Can Inhibit Child Development

Talking on the phone is passé. You know it, the phone company knows it, and most of all our kids—and grandkids—know it. Texting is the new norm. Interpersonal relations have become the stuff of keystrokes rather than face-to-face emotion. Why? Several reasons, the first of which is that we can. 2. Actually talking on the phone requires more energy than texting—all that listening and evoking. 3. By putting more space between us texting emboldens and gives us a feeling of more control. Time is also factor in this arrangement. We text, we wait, we read, we think, we reply—or maybe we don’t. This back and forth time delay takes us just enough out of the moment such that we are able to communicate more accurately the thoughts and emotions we want to.

  Conflict resolution issues also benefit from a little extra time to formulate calmer, more reasoned responses. The downside of texting is that it diminishes our ability to articulately read exactly where our fellow texter is “coming from.” Is Mom really happy Dad wants you to stay with him an extra night this weekend or is she just faking it? Is Dad really mad you want to go home a day early or is he just kidding? Are they happy about being mad or mad at being happy? Maybe they are really furious but pretending to be indifferent? Are they hurt? Because you are not able to watch their bodies and look into their oxytocin eyes you can’t really be sure. You are only 7 years old and you are just too young and you don’t know, so the conflict remains open-ended. 

  A fundamental component of child conflict resolution skills starts with an authentic interpretation of what is going down. Young kids in the formative years need to learn how to accurately interpret the correct, honest emotions of others. If there is conflict going on they need to be able to look into the eyes of that person where they can get a more honest read. According to developmental psychologists this is the problem with too much texting. 7 year olds aren’t able to extrapolate complicated human emotion during texting sessions. They just aren’t there yet. Their interpersonal skills are just forming; they are not as capable of emotional assessment without fundamental body language cues.

  MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle is doing a lot of research on this subject. She believes that having a conversation with another person teaches kids to, in effect, have a conversation with themselves—to think and reason and self-reflect. “That particular skill is bedrock of development,” She says.

  “Saying you are sorry and hitting send is the best example of what is wrong with communicating honest emotion via texts. A full-scale apology means I know I’ve hurt you; I get to see that in your eyes. You get to see that I’m uncomfortable, and with that, the compassion response kicks in. There are many steps and they’re all bypassed when we text.” Phone apologies are not perfect but they are better. Even though the visuals are not there the voice is, and much can be garnered from that.

  To be sure, texting an apology from afar is part of texts appeal. It softens the blow. Adult texters, especially shy ones, can navigate their relationships from the confines of their texting “space” to the point where they recede deeper and deeper into their comfort zones that looks a lot like emotional agoraphobia. Hiding and functionally afraid to converse, their lives could almost be said to exist at a point somewhere between being and nothingness. Turkle says, “I talk to kids and they describe their fear of conversation. An 18-year-old I interviewed recently said, ‘Someday, but certainly not now, I want to learn to have a conversation.’”

  In their formative years children need all of the nonverbal visual cues they can get their eyes on. That’s why they are so easy to manipulate with lies like the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny and Santa. Children are functionally illiterate when it comes to the subtitles of facial inflection and expressions. That only comes with face time and a lot of experience. To deprive your kids of this in the formative years is to jip them of a very valuable skill set and possibly foster even more shyness.

  Texting is here to stay and that is a good thing. It has miraculously brought us back to a lifestyle of writing words to communicate. This epistolary—letter writing—tradition is marvelous; however it is not a substitute for the real thing, especially with shy children. They should be encouraged put down the phone and spend more face time even if it is only on Skype. Too much texting, Turkle warns, amounts to a life of “hiding in plain sight.”