Texting at 20: boon or bane? Texting’s inventor mystified by its popularity

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Twenty years ago this month, a young British engineer named Neil Papworth sent the world’s first text message—a seasonally appropriate “Merry Christmas” from a computer to his boss’s cellphone. Mr. Papworth never imagined at the time that text messaging would become part of global mainstream daily interpersonal discourse.

A recent World Bank study estimates that about three-quarters of the world’s population now has cellphone access, with trillions of text messages sent around the globe every day. Texting especially dominates the way young adults and teenagers communicate. A recent Pew Internet study found that about 63 percent of teens text on a daily basis.

As for Neil Papworth, a recent news report says the popularity and ubiquity of texting is still somewhat baffling to him, and he wonders where people find the time to send 100 or more text messages a day. I find that a puzzler as well. Time being a finite commodity, all that texting, (not to mention tweeting and Facebooking) usually over trivial and ephemeral subject matter, has to be displacing more productive and edifying pursuits—not to mention sleep (see below). Papworth himself says he sends maybe 10 or 15 texts a week.

According to a new Simmons National Consumer Study, 48% of adults aged 18-to-24 say that a conversation via text message is just as meaningful to them as a telephone call. A similar share of adults ages 25-to-34 feel the same way.

Simmons’ John Fetto notes that for young adults, many of whom were not yet born when Neil Papworth sent that first text message, texting is almost as common a mobile activity as talking.

Fetto reports that regardless of age, texting is still, technically, the second most common activity that Americans engage in on their cell phone after talking. The Simmons study found that during a typical week, 95% of mobile adults talk on their mobile phone while 59% text. Among young adults aged 18-to-24, however, 89% talk on their phone and 85% text. Despite the increasing availability of mobile chat or instant message applications, texting remains the dominant medium for exchanging short messages. Only 8% of all mobile adults use their phone to IM or chat.

To get a more in-depth understanding of the texting habits of adults today, the researchers leveraged data from the Simmons Connect mobile panel of 1,485 U.S. smartphone owners, finding that, hands down, young adults text more than any age other age group. During a typical month, the study determined that smartphone-owners aged 18-to-24 send 2,022 mobile text messages and receive another 1,831 for a combined total of 3,852 texts sent and received. With every age bracket on up, the number of mobile texts drops by roughly 40%. For instance, smartphone owners aged 25-to-34 send, on average, 1,110 text messages a month and receive another 1,130 for a combined total of 2,240 messages—still an awful lot of texting. Where do they find the time?

John Fetto says researchers were also able to leverage the Simmons Connect smartphone panel to understand mobile calling behaviors. The data shows that while young adults hold the record for most text messages sent and received, they actually make and receive few voice calls, by comparison. During a typical month, smartphone owners aged 18-to-24 will make an average of 119 calls on their mobile phone and answer another 64 calls. Adults aged 35-to-44 make and receive the most calls on their mobile phones in a given month.

Text around the clock

Unlike television and radio, which have peak hours for reaching consumers, mobile text messages reach Americans throughout the day, providing advertisers with a medium to connect with consumers any time they want or need.

No surprise, young adults are the most likely to send and receive mobile text messages throughout the day. The smartphone panel data shows that during every hour between 8:00 A.M. and midnight, more than half of young smartphone owners are both sending and receiving mobile text messages. Even when most of us are asleep, young adults’ smartphones continue buzzing from inbound texts. In fact, Fetto says 37% of 18-to-24 year-old smartphone owners receive texts at 4:00 in the morning. By comparison, just 20% of smartphone-owners ages 25-to-34 years-old receive texts at this late (or early) hour as do 17% of those 35-to-44, 15% of those 45-to-54 and 10% of those ages 55 and older.

Better to send or to receive?

During overnight hours, the share of young smartphone owners who send texts surpasses the share that receives them. However, by 8:00 A.M., the difference between those two figures narrows to the point that they are nearly equal, and from noon until 11:00 P.M., young adults are more likely to send mobile text messages than they are to receive them.

Call or text?

While texting is still a secondary use of mobile phones after calling, that’s not the case all day, especially among young adults. Smartphone owners aged 18-to-24 are more likely to make an outbound call than they are to send a text from their phone between 7:00 A.M. and 10:00 P.M., they are more likely to send a text between 11:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M., during hours when they might understandably wake the recipient.

Disturbed sleep may be a factor in scientific observation that mobile phone use makes kids less thoughtful and more prone to making mistakes elsewhere in life. Professor Michael Abramson of Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, has determined that while thumbing a few keys and seeing the desired word appear in full trains children to be fast, but inaccurate when doing other things. A report by The Telegraph’s Science Correspondent Richard Alleyne notes that Prof. Abramson analysed the mobile phone use of children aged between 11 and 14 and their ability to carry out a number of computer tests. When researchers studied the way the subjects handled IQ-type tests, they found that increased mobile phone use appears to change the way their brains work. Prof. Abramson commented that “The kids who used their phones a lot were faster on some of the tests, but were less accurate… We suspect that using mobile phones a lot, particularly tools like predictive texts for SMS, is training them to be fast but inaccurate. Their brains are still developing so if there are effects then potentially it could have effects down the line, especially given that the exposure is now almost universal. The use of mobile phones is changing the way children learn and pushing them to become more impulsive in the way they behave.” report by Dr. Ananya Mandal, MD notes that scientists at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine who surveyed 4,257 high school students from an urban county in the U.S. Midwest to look at the health effects of communications technology usage reportedly found that found that teenage “hyper texters” who texted more than 120 messages per day were 40% more likely to smoke, 43% more likely to binge drink, 41% more likely to use illicit drugs, 55% more likely to have been in a physical fight, 3.5 times more likely to have had sex, and 90% more likely to report having had four or more sexual partners.

Study team leader Scott Frank of Case Western Reserve is cited commenting: “The startling results of this study suggest that when left unchecked, texting and other widely popular methods of staying connected can have dangerous health effects on teenagers… This should be a wake-up call for parents to not only help their children stay safe by not texting and driving, but by discouraging excessive use of the cell phone or social web sites in general.” He presented the study findings at the 138th annual meeting and exposition of the American Public Health Association in Denver.

Texting While Driving Distempers

Speaking of texting and driving, it’s an even uglier downside to the texting revolution than altered brain function, arguably squandered time, and disturbed sleep.

The National Safety Council created the Annual Estimate of Cell Phone Crashes because data about cell phone use as a factor in motor vehicle crashes is currently under-reported. In jurisdictions where police attempt to collect this data, they must rely almost entirely on driver self-reports or witness reports of cell phone use at the time of the crash, resulting in significant under-reporting.

The NSC estimate includes property damage only crashes as well as injury and fatal crashes.


  • The NSC model estimates 21 percent of crashes or 1.1 million crashes in 2010 involve talking on handheld and hands-free cell phones.
  • The model estimates an additional 3 percent or more crashes or a minimum of 160,000 of crashes in 2010 involve text messaging.
  • Thus a total of a minimum of 24% of crashes involve drivers talking and texting on cell phones.

A PDF can be downloaded from

According to a U.K. Transport Research Laboratory study commissioned by the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, motorists sending text messages while driving are “significantly more impaired” than ones who drive drunk. The study showed texters’ reaction times deteriorated by 35%, and a whopping 91% decrease in steering ability, while similar studies of drunk driving indicate reaction times diminishment of a relatively modest 12%. By that measure, DWT is three times more dangerous than DWI, and should logically be treated as severely, if not more so, both under the law and in terms of social censure.

Another study conducted by the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, presented to the Pediatric Academic Societies, found that teens using a driving simulator while sending text messages or searching MP3 player menus changed speed, steered erratically, and, in some cases, ran over pedestrians, showing these behaviors clearly pose a danger to drivers themselves and those around them. Motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death for people between 16 and 20, the most prolific texting demographic, with teenage drivers four times more likely to crash than older drivers even when not texting.

Dennis Simanaitis, Engineering Editor of Road & Track magazine, reported (August, 2008) that research at the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found that not only are holding, dialing, or—worse—text messaging with cellphones dangerous while driving, but also that just the mental interaction of talking on a cellphone—even a hands-free unit—degrades driving performance.

It appears that a major public consciousness-raising and education effort is required. While drinking and driving is now widely considered totally inappropriate and intolerable, texting while driving is not, with an apparent disconnect between public conviction and behavior. Reuters reported that while 83% of respondents surveyed nationwide said DWT should be illegal, one-quarter of U.S. cellphone users admit to texting while driving. Ongoing surveys by the U.S. National Highway Safety Administration show 85% of all auto crashes and 65% of all near-crashes result from distracted driving.

The U.S. National Safety Council advocates banning all cellphone use by automobile operators, advising that the prudent course is to turn the ringer off and stash the phone somewhere out of reach before turning the ignition key. Parents also need to get on the case. A survey by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance Group found 52% of teens who say their parents would be unlikely to punish them for driving while text-messaging said they would continue doing so, compared with 36% who believe their parents would penalize them.

However, a growing body of research and empirical observation indicates that Driving While Texting could be a substantially worse public safety hazard than Driving While Intoxicated, and should be just as socially unacceptable.

As for texting in general, when it’s used responsibly, IMHO, and provided it doesn’t become an obsession and a central focus of one’s life, it can be an excellent, useful, and convenient communications technology. Irresponsible and/or excessive use makes it something other.

What’s your perspective? After 20 years filed testing, do texting’s positive attributes outweigh its negative effects?

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