This is probably a good point at which to apologize for the confusing vernacular in the world of chatting and messaging. We are addressing several mechanisms for chatting via typed text that is sent as a series of messages, and yet “chatting,” “messaging,” and “texting” are three different (albeit related) things. Like a lot of language and terminology issues, the evolution of these terms is a matter of etymological history and there’s nothing we can do about it at this point.
Having said that, “text messaging” (or “texting”) is essentially messaging utilizing the short message service (SMS) built in to most cell phones today. The concept is similar to instant messaging, except that the contact information for the person you are texting is a cell phone number, rather than a user name associated with some service.
Like messaging, texting is a much safer activity than chat rooms, and I’m confident that there are powerful and valuable uses for texting, despite the dangers.
However, let’s start with the cautionary issues. All of the problematic issues we talked about with respect to messaging apply equally to texting: inordinate time commitment, emotional separation, undesirable contact with bad influences, contact with strangers, and access to predators. Two additional issues make texting a bit more dangerous: ready access to phone conversation, and sexting.
Since texting requires a phone number, if someone can text you, they can also call you. For a predator, instant messaging and text messaging are avenues to personal contact, so phone conversations may be a prelude to face-to-face contact. I consider it more dangerous to text with a stranger than to IM with a stranger, although both are to be strongly discouraged.
The second significant danger particular to text messaging is “sexting.” The fundamental idea behind this emergent phenomenon involves sending inappropriate messages between cell phones. Your first reaction may be that one can send inappropriate material of all types using basically any communication mechanism, whether it’s email, a chat room, instant messaging, or a letter in the mail. So what makes the cell phone and text messaging such a prime platform for a behavior so pernicious that it gets its own name? The answer lies in the convergence of technologies present in a modern cell phone, in particular built-in digital cameras and the ability of the SMS service to transmit image files as well as text messages.
While the broad definition of sexting involves anything inappropriate, textual or otherwise, the common definition of sexting involves pornographic digital images taken by a phone camera and then sent via text messaging to another phone. In many cases young men are pressuring young women to provide this material, and in other cases the girls initiate the interaction by providing a “sexy present” to their boyfriend. As troubling as the basic idea of sexting is, it’s actually even more problematic legally. First, in some states, when a minor takes a pornographic picture of themselves, such an act may constitute production of child pornography, at least by the letter of the law. Clearly such acts fall below the threshold of the child pornographers for whom the obscenity laws were written in the first place. On the other hand, simply doing nothing about such behavior sends the wrong message to young people who are engaging in this behavior. In almost every state, legislatures are grappling with how to appropriately deal with this scourge in such a way that youth are encouraged to behave appropriately without branding a seventeen-year-old as a child pornographer because of an indiscretion (albeit a phenomenally inappropriate and stupid one).
The second complication with respect to sexting has to do with the fact that messages, once received, can be forwarded to others. So imagine a junior high school boy who receives a text from his girlfriend containing a nude picture of herself taken with her cell phone camera. Later on they break up and in his anger and frustration he decides to share the picture with some of his friends just to get back at her. He forwards the message via text to his five closes buddies. Each of them sends it to others, and before too long almost every student in the school has a nude picture of this particular classmate.
The convergence of messaging, digital cameras, and mobility have made the cell phone a powerful tool for both good and evil. Since I’ve dwelt for a bit on the extreme dangers, here’s an inspiring story that illustrates the positive use of this technology.
Many of you will remember hearing of the passing of President Hinckley. Some of you may be aware that on the day following his death, across the United States and Canada tens of thousands of young people arrived at school dressed in their Sunday best as a tribute to their beloved prophet. Before the morning newspaper had even arrived to carry the news, many of these young people were already leaving for school dressed in suits and dresses. How did thousands and thousands of Latter-day Saint youth manage to coordinate such a tribute across an entire continent in a matter of hours? Text messaging.
Here’s the story. The evening that Pres. Hinckley passed away, one of his grandchildren texted friends to tell them the news that their grandpa had died. These friends texted other friends, and the news spread very quickly through an ad hoc network of young people. Early in the process, one of the youth in the communication chain had the inspiration to dress in Sunday best the following day as a tribute, and sent that out to their friends along with the news of Pres. Hinckley’s death. That message spread from phone to phone via text message, and in a matter of hours tens of thousands of young people had made the commitment to dress up the next day to honor their prophet.
The point in telling this story is simply to illustrate that the technological convergence represented by modern cell phones is neither good nor evil, but can be used for every imaginable purpose.
Weakening conversational skills
For some reason, text messaging has become a powerful hook for young people, even if the content of their communications or the people with whom they communicate is beyond reproach. “Existing research suggests that shy people often satisfy their affiliation needs through alternative forms of communication via technology. For example, socially anxious individuals have been found to prefer sending text messages via cell phones rather than speaking on the phone.”5
The brethren have expressed concern that young people in the Church are experiencing atrophy in their personal skills and that such diminished skill makes it more difficult for young men to effectively serve the Lord as missionaries.
Text messaging has manifested itself as a risk when people text while driving. Many states have now passed laws forbidding this behavior. We talk more about this in Chapter 7: Cell Phones and Mobile Devices.
Text messaging figures prominently in certain aspects of cyberbullying, which we discuss in greater detail in Chapter 9: Cyberbullying.