Dear Dr. Wolf,
Is it possible to be addicted to texting? Our 14-year-old daughter has become so attached to her phone, we are beginning to worry about her. Although her marks are still excellent, she shows little interest in things she used to enjoy, such as reading and spending family time with us and her brother. Texting her friends has become the most important thing in her life, and she is sometimes in contact with as many as eight or 10 friends at once. We have imposed a daily three-hour no-texting window, but when the phone is off for those three hours, she seems antsy, fidgety and unable to focus on anything, which increases our concern. Do you have any advice for us?
A sample of typical teen messaging:
Kelsey texting her good friend Anyssa: "Did you notice how Lauren was ignoring Laura today at lunch?"
"You noticed too?"
"Yes. What's going on between them?"
Simultaneously, Kelsey texting Logan (a boy who is a friend): "You were so rude to Kimmie today."
"What did I do?"
Simultaneously, Kelsey receiving a text from Angela: "Tell me what you really think about my haircut."
"I really like it."
"I'm not. It's really cute."
Why do they text all the time? It is being connected to what's going on. It is being connected to the world of people you care about. It is a world that is not static - it constantly moves along, ever changing - and is of intense interest, especially if there is anything that pertains to you.
"Candace said what about me?"
It is precisely a soap opera, but with infinitely more plots and subplots. It is not just interesting - it's intensely interesting. It's a reality show with far more characters, you actually know just about all of them, and you are one of them. If you aren't constantly in touch, you may miss out.
While they sit having quality family time, their world moves on without them.
It's not only keeping up with what's happening; it's being connected at a deeper level. It is that connection that supplies teens with their primary sense of security - or not. And since as part of adolescence the connection to parents - by definition - becomes less powerful, that necessary source of connection switches over more strongly to friends.
Is it an addiction? It is if an addiction is something you feel you can't do without; if it becomes a top priority in your life, without which you would develop an intense craving and would have considerable agitation should you be deprived of it.
But maybe it is a relatively benign addiction. And as they move into later adolescence, it can become less intense.
Is it a problem? Yes, if school work drops off significantly. Yes, if they seem significantly less, not more, happy - the intensity, the constant connection, may be taking a toll. Yes, if their lives narrow to the point that all other activities drop away.
What to do? If you are uncomfortable with the sheer amount of their texting - you are the parent and your judgment has to be the ultimate standard - then you do want to limit their texting time. They will not like it. They will be at a loss - agitated, irritable, uncertain what to do. But as time goes on, if they know for certain that the ban on texting during this set time period will not change, they will adjust. They will learn to fill the time. You can make suggestions, but really, it's not your problem, it's theirs.
That's the whole point: to have time go by during which she is not connected to her friends, not connected to the drama. She may miss out on some of the goings on. But it won't ruin her life, even though she may insist that it does.
Should you stay with the partial texting ban? That is up to you. But it is not a total ban, and if she seems at a loss to deal with the hole in her life, the main cure for that is for her to learn to fill it. She fills it not because she wants to, but because she's stuck with it, and that is her only choice. Doing something - anything - ultimately is better than just sitting and staring into space. Will she somehow be better for it? Probably. But that doesn't mean she wouldn't go back to full-time texting in a minute - if you let her.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.