texting

Why are Brits now texting more than we talk?

Yesterday Ofcom revealed that we Brits are now texting more than we talk [1].

On average, we currently send around 50 texts per week (this number has more than doubled in four years), and in 2011 alone, we collectively sent over 150 billion texts.

The report shows that traditional forms of communications are declining in popularity, and that – for the first time – the volume of mobile calls we make has started to fall (by just over 1% in 2011).

Teen spirit

And it’s teens who are leading the trend.

Despite the prevalence of mobile (they’re-called-phones-for-a-reason) phones, the days of voice calls are fast becoming consigned to the past. According to Ofcom, a full 96% of 16-24 year olds now use text-based applications to get in touch with friends and family on a daily basis, with 73% using social networking platforms as their media of choice. No surprises there. But when you compare this to the falling numbers who are making daily calls (67%) and talking face-to-face (63%), it’s easy to see why such stats might be raising more than a few eyebrows.

Beyond the obvious allure that comes with any new, shiny technology, is there a deeper reason why the tides of communication are starting to turn?

Autonomy

When it comes to revolutions (no matter how large or small), history has shown us time and again that it’s usually the young who forge the way. And so it is with tech.

I’m sure you can remember being at school, not yet old enough to do what you wanted, and frustrated by the limits placed on you by adults who seemed to have all the freedom and power you craved. No? Maybe it’s just me. Either way, this desire for autonomy and the yearning to define ourselves on our own terms, is one of the most powerful driving forces at this age. And it just so happens that mobiles provide a great way to explore and harness this.

Swift and silent, texting is one of the quickest, most clandestine forms of communication available – perfect for this young demographic. You can do it under your desk (touch-typing so fast it’ll make your eyes water), or at home out of the earshot of your parents. In short, it’s the embodiment of stealth comms.

But like most technologies, there is a downside.

The age of digital has made celebrities of us all

Texting is not what it used to be. With is multi-media funtionality it’s a now a conduit for everything from contact-sharing to porn (sexting). The erosion of personal privacy, both as a concept and as a reality, has started ringing alarm bells for those of us old enough to remember a pre-internet world. But for many digital natives, the parameters of what is public and private have become so blurred and indefinable, that to many they barely merit distinction.

It’s a situation which is only made more complex by the fact that we are now collectively more aware of our public selves than at any other point in history. This uncomfortable dance between a lack of boundaries and the celebritisation of our lives has led to a strange scenario in which we have become the stars and the script writers of our own digital dramas.

We are our own PR team. And texting (along with text-based comms such as emails and social platforms) has granted us the ability to control what, when and how we communicate with others, allowing us to act either with self-conscious caution, or with irretractable spontaneity.

The rules of the game have changed.

We’re less accountable

Although many curse the advance of technology for many of these ills, our inclination to express (or hide) ourselves through words is not new. Since we were first able to write, those humans who had the skills to transfer meaning through text also typically held the power. Yet now that we are all of us scribes, the other forms of communication on which we rely for meaningful connection are starting to suffer.

For instance recent research suggests that long-term exposure to electronic environments may actually be rewiring our neural networks, damaging our ability to form relationships and develop vital non-verbal social skills [2]. Other research shows that this is especially true for digital natives, for whom long periods of time online can lead to a reluctance to interact socially and an inability to maintain eye-contact with others [3]. All in all, this trend towards textual and digital communication seems to paint rather a bleak picture.

But all is not lost.

Better connected?

As much as we might bemoan (or laud) the current state of things, texting does enable us to reach out in ways and at speeds that were previously unavailable to us. It allows us to stay in touch with geographically distant friends and family. It gives those of us who are socially awkward or reticent a channel through which to connect. And it provides a means with which to communicate on our own terms, with the precision and acuity that sometimes only the pre-meditated written word can allow.

Yes, it might be re-configuring the way that we interact and connect with one another. It may even be re-wiring the way we think [4]. But we are, first and foremost, social creatures – and I very much doubt that texting will remove us so far from our nature that it will replace the fulfilment and pleasure we get through real, physical human contact.


 

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[1] Communications Market Report 2012.

[2] Gary Small & Gigi Vorgan (2008) iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. Collins Living.

[3] Mathiak K. & Weber R. (2006) Toward brain correlates of natural behavior: fMRI during violent video games. Human Brain Mapping, 27(12), pp. 948-56.

[4] Nicholas Carr (2010) The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. Atlantic Books.

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Nathalie Nahai

Nathalie Nahai

Best-selling author of "Webs of Influence" (Pearson). International speaker, consultant, columnist at Marketing Week.