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Does Your Toddler Text?

By Margaret Jessop, PsyD

            Of course the answer is no, but it might not be long before your little ones pick up a pink or blue play phone and start texting their little hearts out.

Social learning is the foundation of many areas of child development, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see a toddler attempting to text on a phone.  Mom, Dad and older siblings text so chances are toddlers have observed texting hundreds of times. It isn’t surprising, but it gives me concern.

As a culture, we are still new at texting and there are no norms to suggest how texting is best used or how much is too much. Texting behavior varies from the relatively benign texting while waiting in line to the much more dangerous texting while driving.  I receive many questions from parents about how to help teens manage their texting behaviors.  Parents understandably want to know if what their teens are doing is harmful to their social development and overall mental health.

When you watch some teens text, their behavior looks very similar to gambling. Consider this scenario: Your teen sends a text message to one or several friends and then waits to get a reply. It may or may not come right away. Sometimes it takes minutes, hours or days. Or the reply may never come at all. Waiting can make teens nervous, worried, or even wonder if the message was sent correctly. They may even send it again. When the payoff comes—the message they have been waiting for—they feel relieved, excited or disappointed if they don’t get the message they were hoping for.

This inconsistent reward pattern is similar to gambling. In other words, sometimes you get a text back in one minute—Ding you win—and sometimes it takes hours or it doesn’t come at all—no Ding you lose.

This satisfaction felt in receiving texts is even more complicated when you consider the social recognition gained from text messages. It’s like ‘social money’.  But is this enriching your teens’ mental health or harming them?

In November 2010 Scott Frank, MD, MS, from Case Western Reserve University, presented his findings on hyper-texting and hyper-social networking at the American Public Health Association in Denver. He and his research team took their data from 4,000 high school students in urban Ohio. Twenty percent of those students sent at least 120 text messages a day (defined as hyper-texting) and ten percent were on social network sites three or more hours a day (defined as hyper-social networking). The teens that did both, hyper-text and hyper-social network, were twice as likely to be at risk for smoking, risky sex, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and absenteeism.  Hyper-texting doesn’t cause these high risk behaviors, but this study indicates they are often seen together.

Let’s say there are some addictive qualities to the kind of texting behavior.  Maybe this is why I just don’t get all warm and fuzzy when I see a toddler imitating and practicing this behavior. Texting is here to stay so we need to consider what is working and what isn’t

What can we do to help the next generations of texters learn how to use their phone in moderation? From my clinical experience, healthy habits began early can stay for life. The sooner you implement guidelines the more likely your children will stick to them. Here are a few suggestions I have offered in my practice.

For your Toddlers:

  • Limit the amount of texting you do in front of your toddlers (and teens). Remember, kids are social learners. Model what you expect from them. Turn your device off when you are not using it or are focused on other tasks including driving, meal times (even breast feeding), family functions and working.
  • Delay giving children cell phones with texting options for as long as possible. Cell phones have moved away from being predominantly a tool to entertainment. Therefore, cell phones are optional for most children.

For your Teens:

  • Encourage teens to text with predictable start and stop times. You can eliminate most of the inconsistency in the reinforcement pattern if they simply use it for a period of time and then stop.  For example, they can let friends know they will be texting from 7 – 8 p.m.  and after that they are off. Those friends who ‘have to text’ will then know when they will get a response from your teen
  • Turn off the volume. Each time we hear a ding from a device we get a small surge of stress hormone that tells the body to respond. If you turn our volume off you avoid the stress hormone and you also eliminate the inconsistent reinforcement pattern. You check for your message on your one schedule.
  • Keep the cell phone out of the bedroom at night, thus eliminating the temptation. Teens are not afraid of a sleepless night and can be tempted to text off and on, interrupting their much-needed sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to missed school, poor concentration and mood disorders.
  • Consider phone plans with limited texting. If this limit is set at the beginning, your child will have to budget their texting and make responsible choices about whom and how much to text.


Hyper-texting and hyper-networking: A new health risk category for teens? (Nov2010)