Texting and Relationships and Thinking

In my office the other day a student complained about his younger sibling, and then mentioned a roommate had the same experience with his younger sibling;  the point of said complaint was that the younger teens are addicted to texting and their cell phones. “They can’t live without them,” he observed.

Which leads to Stephen Carter’s recent post:

In recent years, there has been no shortage of reports ontelevision about researchers who say they have found teens addicted to their mobile phones. Perhaps a better way to view the data is as an illustration of how mobile phones in general, and texting in particular, have taken over the experiential world of the young. An economist might expect that teens deprived of texting would simply substitute another method of communication – – talking, for instance. As it turns out, a significant minority will not. They will behave instead, researchers report, the way people do when deprived of human contact.

The phone, in other words, is not merely a tool through which teens keep in touch with friends. It is the technology that defines their social circle. If they cannot text someone, that person may as well not exist.

Still, I am not criticizing the technology itself. Like most people of all ages these days, I find texting far too convenient to ignore — although, to be sure, my usual quota is two or three texts a day, not seven an hour.

But this leads him to his most important observation – time for thinking, something I absolutely relish.

The larger problem with texting involves neither the physical nor the mental health of our growing army of young texters. My worry is that the ubiquity of texting may accelerate the decline of what our struggling democracy most needs: independent thought. Indeed, as texting crowds out other activities, it must inevitably crowd out inactivity — and there lies a danger. For inactivity and thinking are inextricably linked.

By inactivity, I mean doing nothing that occupies the mind: time spent in reflection. Bertrand Russell wrote a marvelous essay on this subject, titled “In Praise of Idleness” (also the title of the collection in which the essay is most readily found). Russell’s point is that when the rest of the world thinks we are idle, the brain, if properly trained, is following its own path. Only then, he contends, are we truly thinking. The rest of the time we are analyzing and reacting, but our thoughts are then determined by responses to the thoughts of others. Unless we spend time in reflection — in idleness — we can never truly think thoughts of our own.

Already we live in an era when there is little time for idle thinking. Whether in the storms of political argument or the hyperkinetic pace of the workplace, we are called upon constantly to respond rather than reflect. The education of the young, increasingly built around the rapid-fire model of the standardized test, only enhances the model of thought in which speed is everything and reflection is for those left behind. As young people increasingly fill their free hours with texting and other similarly fast-paced, attention-absorbing activities, the opportunities for sustained reflective thought will continue to fade.

Today’s public debates are dominated by the short and the snappy, and influential pundits often seem to take pride in the assumption that nobody who disagrees with them can possibly have anything useful to say. As Cass Sunstein, now a White House adviser, points out in his splendid book “Republic.com,” a crucial aspect of free speech is that it forces us, from time to time, to encounter a voice we do not expect to hear making a point we have not considered.

We are spiraling rapidly away from that healthy democratic vision. The explosion of text messaging is certainly not a cause of the unhealthy political world we adults are bequeathing to our children. But it points to how far we are from a cure.



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  • Jag

    The older generation have always thought the new technologies of the new generation are bad. I don’t recall my grandparents doing a lot of idle thinking and reflection as they scraped out a living.

    Texting can bring you into contact with new people and thus new ideas far easier than my experience growing up in a small town with one (agenda-driven) newspaper, a vetted library, and teachers who seemed to have a hive mind.

    In any case, man proposes and technology disposes, and fighting the evolution of tech is like fighting the tide.

  • TJ

    Jag — Perhaps the quickness of your response proves Carter’s point. :o)

  • frailb

    The technology doesn’t bother me, but I think Russell’s point still holds true. Idleness — at least using his definition, and not the one often used in proverbs, is something we no longer know how to do.

    I’ve got three young kids, and I admit that we’ve got an iPad, iPod, iPhone, and other devices that are within their reach. I realize I’ve grown a lot more lax over this past year, but I often limit their usage, not because of the technology, per se, but I have this mantra, “Sometimes, the most important thing is that children learn how to be bored.” I think boredom can lead to trouble, but it can also lead to extraordinary creativity, self-management, and a deeper delight in yourself and life.

  • My son recently logged 17,000 texts in one month. I’m so proud.

    Seriously, it’s a huge issue with kids. I’m not sure that being in several shallow conversations 20 hours a day is healthy.

    Convenient? Yes. Healthy? I don’t think so.