Pam Zingeser relaxes with her daughter Julie, 15, and their dog, Tucker.… (Katherine Frey -- The Washington…)
Julie Zingeser texts at home, at school, in the car while her mother is driving. She texts during homework, after pompon practice and as she walks the family dog. She takes her cellphone with her to bed.
Every so often, the hum of a new message rouses the Rockville teen from sleep. "I would die without it," Julie, 15, says of her text life.
This does not surprise her mother, Pam, who on one recent afternoon scans the phone bill for the eye-popping number that puts an exclamation point on how growing up has changed in the digital age. In one busy month, Pam finds, her youngest daughter sent and received 6,473 text messages.
For Pam Zingeser, the big issue is not cost -- it's $30 a month for the family's unlimited texting plan -- but the effects of so much messaging. Pam wonders: What will this generation learn and what will they lose in the relentless stream of sentence fragments, abbreviations and emoticons? "Life's issues are not always settled in sound bites," Pam says.
Parents, educators and researchers are grappling with similar concerns as text messaging has exploded across the formative years of the nation's youngest generation. Teens now do more texting on their cellphones than calling. And although it's too early for conclusive data on the effects of prolific texting -- on attention span, social life, writing ability, family connections -- questions abound, even as many experts point to clear benefits.
"It's a huge cultural phenomenon with huge down-the-road consequences," contends David E. Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan.
Nationally, more than 75 billion text messages are sent a month, and the most avid texters are 13 to 17, say researchers. Teens with cellphones average 2,272 text messages a month, compared with 203 calls, according to the Nielsen Co.
The tap, tap, tap of connectivity can benefit teenagers at a time in life when they cannot always get together in an unscheduled way. Texters are "sharing a sense of co-presence," said Mimi Ito of the University of California at Irvine. "It can be a very socially affirming thing."
For families, the text world can bring convenience as never before in arranging rides, doing errands, letting parents know of changing plans.
But some experts say there are downsides, starting with declines in spelling, word choice and writing complexity. Some suggest too much texting is related to an inability to focus.
There also are concerns about texting while driving, text-bullying and "sexting," or the term for adolescents messaging naked photos of themselves or others. What might have been intended for a friend can be widely distributed, and the texting of lewd photographs of minors can lead to criminal charges.
The American Journal of Psychiatry published an editorial last year by psychiatrist Jerald J. Block, suggesting that addiction to the Internet and text messaging be included in the diagnostic manual for mental illnesses.
Block said no one knows how prevalent digital addictions might be. Overall, he said, "our use of technology today amounts to a large social experiment. We still don't know how it helps us or how it hurts us."
Addicted or not, hard-core texters find it difficult to be "in the moment" with other people because they are constantly being summoned by someone else in another place, said Naomi S. Baron, professor of linguistics at American University.
"It is part of a larger phenomenon of where is your mind, and if your mind is always on your phone, it's not on other things," she said.
There is a cost when people multitask -- "a kind of a mental brownout," said Meyer, the professor at the University of Michigan. If a teenager is reading Shakespeare when a text message interrupts, "Hamlet's going to fade in and out in a ghostly fog."
The problem, he said, is "you're not truly time-sharing. You're flitting back and forth, and the flitting itself is taking processing capacity."
Not everyone sees the change in the same way.
Al Filreis, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he has seen the quality of student writing improve, first in the mid-1990s with the growing popularity of e-mail and again as an increasing number of cellphones have included keyboards.
"In writing, quantity tends to lead to quality," he said, "and we're doing quantity right now." Through texting and other instant communication, Filreis says, his students have learned hard-to-teach lessons about audience, succinctness and syntax. "My students are better writers than they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 25 years ago."
For the youngest generation, this profound shift arrives just as they come of age.
"The mode of communication among young people is changing so rapidly that I can't help but surmise that it will change the way they think," said John Palfrey, a Harvard University law professor and co-author of "Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives." The big question is how.