Texting Teens: Why do they text so much?

Teens text a lot, but why?

Who owns a cell phone? If you look around you, the answer seems to be everybody—and it nearly is among young adults 18–29 years old.  In fact, 96% of young adults own a cell phone, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.  You might wonder: Do they really have that much talking to do? Actually, it seems not so much. Young adults are the most avid texters of all age groups, exchanging over 100 texts a day, and 3,200 texts a month (We’ll leave it to you to do the math on yearly averages)!  Other adults average only half as many texts.

different cell phonesAnd what about teens, with their less arthritic fingers? Well, three-fourths of teens 12–17 years old own cell phones and their texting surpasses that of young adults.  There is an interesting gender gap: Girls send around 3,952 text messages a month, and boys tap out a comparatively paltry 2,815 text messages a month. It may not be surprising then that texting and picture taking are the most common ways that U.S. youth and young adults use their cell phones. As Aaron Smith (author of a Pew Internet & American Life Study report on Americans and cell phones) points out, “You’ve got a few minutes free, you can text your friends, you can call someone, you can play a game on your cell phone, you can listen to music on your iPod. So, you know, the times where you were just, you know, sitting at a table . . . kind of doing nothing or just contemplating the world, I think are becoming fewer and further between as more of these technologies permeate our daily lives.”

And although there’s a well-worn stereotype of teens talking on the family’s landline and driving up the phone bill, Smith’s research notes that talking on the telephone has declined most among teenagers. While teens still talk on the phone, they much prefer to send dozens of rapid-fire texts every day, carrying on a virtual conversation that’s embedded with acronyms and their own shorthand.  There’s even an acronym for “parent over my shoulder” (POMS), although it’s doubtful that most parents would know what these varied and sometimes long and convoluted acronyms stand for. Instead, to us not part of the modern teenage generation, this new language seems like a modern form of pig Latin. In truth, perhaps it is a modern way of keeping teens’ private conversations private within public spaces.

Other than texting and picture taking, what are teens and young adults using their phones for? Music and games are popular, as is what Pew Internet & American Life Project Director Lee Rainie calls “info snacking”— posting an update on Facebook, watching a video, scanning an RSS feed, reading the news, etc. Half of young adults have smartphones as do one-third of teens, so they really have mini-computers at their fingertips. As Aaron Smith says, “People are actually consuming as much if not more news content on a daily basis than they’ve done really at any point in the recent past. And what they’re doing is they’re adding new technologies into the mix. What we see in our research is people getting a lot of news, but in ways that are different and new from what we saw as of a few years ago.” What feels like a tethered experience for adults may feel to teens and young adults like freedom—they can virtually go anywhere they want and still stay connected with family and friends with their smartphones.  And according to a recent survey by Gartner, the Internet may be replacing the car: 46% of teens and young adults would prefer Internet access to access to a car. Parents would love to know this! IMR (I mean really).


Nick Bilton, “Disruptions: For Teenagers, a Car or a Smartphone?” the New York Times, November 20, 2011, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/a-teenage-question-a-car-or-a-smartphone/.

Mary Madden, “Teens, Social Network Sites & Mobile Phones: What the research is telling us,” Pew Internet & American Life Project,” Dec. 5, 2011, http://pewinternet.org/Presentations/2011/Dec/COSN.aspx.

“Lee Rainie, “As learning goes mobile (slides and video)” presentation at Educause, Pew Internet & American Life Project, October 20, 2011, http://pewinternet.org/Presentations/2011/Oct/Educase-2011.aspx.

NPR, Excerpt from an interview with Aaron Smith, October 18, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130639028.

Aaron Smith, “Americans and Text Messaging,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, September 19, 2011, http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Cell-Phone-Texting-2011.aspx.

Aaron Smith, “Smartphone Adoption and Usage,” Pew Internet & American Life Project,” July 11, 2011, http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Smartphones.aspx.