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Can Too Much Texting Make Teens Shallow?

Study: Young People Who Text Frequently Focus on Wealth, Image; Less on Moral, Spiritual Goals
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 3, 2012 -- Teens and young adults who text frequently -- such as more than 300 text messages a day -- may be risking more than sore thumbs, according to a new study.

"Heavy texters do seem to be a little more materialistic and less concerned about inward growth," says Paul Trapnell, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg in Canada.

The frequent texting, he says, is ''weakly correlated with traits, goals, and attitudes that indicate low interest and engagement in reflective thought." Those who texted very frequently were also more concerned about wealth and image than those who did not text as often.

He conducted the study with Lisa Sinclair, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg. She presented the findings in San Diego at the 13th Annual Meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

"One can't say it's cause and effect," Trapnell tells WebMD. "There could be a hundred different reasons why these associations exist."

"Although the overall size of the finding is small in absolute terms, the finding was very reliable across several years," he tells WebMD. So far, they have looked at five years of data.

Too Much Texting: Study Details

The researchers surveyed more than 2,200 college psychology class students about their texting frequency. They were ages 18 to 22. Data were collected from 2007 through 2011.

Cell phone texting has become the preferred communication method between teens and friends, according to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center. It found that 72% of all teens surveyed use text messaging. That's up from 51% in 2006.

For the Canadian study, the students noted how many text messages they sent or received (whichever number was higher) on their highest-use day of the month. They reported only non-work-related texts.

About 30% of the students had a peak rate of more than 200 texts a day. Twelve percent had a peak rate of more than 300 a day.

The researchers then gave them a battery of tests. These included:

  • A standard personality test to measure such traits as extroversion and openness to experiences.
  • A questionnaire that measures tendencies to engage in reflection and self-reflection: The students agreed or disagreed with such statements as, "I often love to look at my life in philosophical ways."
  • A survey that asked students to rate the importance of numerous life goals: Goals included wealth, fame, image, power, achievement, morality, community, family, health, spirituality, and others.

The researchers looked to see if texting frequency had an effect on the test results.

They wanted to test the so-called ''shallowing hypothesis,"  as described in the Nicholas Carr best seller, The Shallows, and by scientists. It suggests that very brief media social interaction such as texting encourages rapid, relatively shallow thought.

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