“email is sooooo ystrdy. LOL. myspace txt or im me.”

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

September - October 2007

<> When the recent shootings occurred at Virginia Tech, administrators sent a campus-wide e-mail to alert students to stay away. When a local high school needed to contact students at home about an event the following day, they sent an e-mail. In both cases, very few students read the messages in time.  Why? Because e-mail is no longer the preferred communication modality of tweens, teens, and young adults. They prefer more direct methods of communication including text messaging, IMing (instant messaging) and communications via MySpace or Facebook. <>

Until recently e-mail was the rage. Kids exchanged e-mail addresses and adults had theirs printed on their business cards. If you didn’t have an e-mail address you received stares as though you were from Mars.  Then the cell phone became popular and soon tweens and teens were yakking away and racking up those precious, costly minutes, while continuing to embrace e-mail. When America Online introduced its IM program, AIM (a web-based instant messaging system) became an instant hit. In my research several years ago – actually now that I think about it, it was only three years ago but it seems like a decade or more – teens told us that they loved IM and were often IMing (now a verb) an average of four people simultaneously.

Then MySpace and Facebook, social networking sites, erupted on the scene. The latest statistics by Forrester Research indicate that 80 percent of all 12- to 17-year-olds have a profile on MySpace. A July 2007 study by the National School Board Association reported that “Overall, an astonishing 96 percent of students with online access report that they have ... used ... social networking technologies, such as chatting, text messaging, blogging and visiting online communities such as Facebook, MySpace.”Yes, you read that correctly. A minimum of eight in 10 teens are wired to a social network and even more are using social networking tools. MySpace has nearly 200 million members and, according to my research and that of others, teens are spending upwards of two to three hours per day communicating with their friends. It is not unusual to see a teen typing a message on MySpace while IMing and texting friends.

At the same time, cellular companies that had been charging 15 cents or more per text message began to offer inexpensive messaging plans. Teens went crazy and parents breathed a sigh of relief. No longer would they have to pay money for text messages nor all those overtime minutes. For a few dollars they could provide their teens with the ability to text nearly at will. And text they did! One study showed that 50 percent of the teens would rather text than talk to their friends. Another found that socially anxious teens are major texters. One well known communication specialist labeled teens “Generation Txt.”

Text messaging is a character-limited system.  My cell carrier – AT&T – allows 918 characters per message. Many allow fewer. These limitations, coupled with the mechanical difficulty of finding the letters using only the standard telephone keypad, necessitates shorthand including: acronyms such as LOL, brb, cya, POS and LMAO (“laughing out loud,” “be right back,” “cover your ass” or “see ya,” “parent over shoulder” and “laughing my ass off”) shortened words (nite instead of night), emoticons or smilies such as :-) (equivalent of a “happy face” or “smiley”– J), capitalization to imply a strong statement (I AM MAD AT YOU), lack of appropriate capitalization (i instead of I), removing unneeded apostrophes (dont) and other tricks to minimize texting effort.

<>Teens have become so proficient at texting that many can text without even looking at the keys. Keeping their cells in their laps, teens text from one side of the classroom to the other, the techno-version of passing notes. One Spanish teacher told the students that during free work time it was not acceptable to talk, but text messaging was fine with him.Teens also quickly figured out how to use their camera phones to send photos back and forth. Catch a picture of two friends kissing during lunch and pretty soon everyone has a copy. At my daughter’s high school students must place their phones in a box during tests because teachers discovered that they were texting answers as well as taking photos of the test and sending them to students who would be taking the tests in a later period. <>Is all this shorthand communication making our students poor English writers?

In England 16-year-old students have taken a standardized writing exam for over 25 years. A comparison of five-year trends indicated that instead of having worse English language skills, students actually improved the quality of their writing, used fewer non-standard English phrases, wrote more complex sentence structure, used a wider vocabulary and produced more accurate punctuation and spelling. Another study of 11-year-olds found that pre-teens who sent more text messages were better at spelling and writing than those who composed fewer text messages.Overall, according to psychologists and linguists, regardless of the use of abbreviations and shortcuts, teens are producing more writing than earlier generations, which is helping them develop their English language skills.

Recently, I was interviewed by Education Week about what educators and administrators can do to improve teen writing. I have some very strong opinions about this issue.First, it is important to realize that teachers and educators are most likely either Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) or older Gen Xers (born after 1964). Their experiences with technological communication are radically different from those in the Net Generation.
  Second, it is equally important to recognize that teens are doing more rather than less writing. Granted this writing may not conform to Standard English, but they are writing prolifically.  Third, I believe that teachers can capitalize on this extensive writing by altering their assignments to include online blogs, virtual chat rooms and other tools that students can do during class or from home.

In my university courses I use BlackBoard – an all-purpose online teaching tool – to include threaded discussions, chats, virtual office hours and a myriad of ways to get my Gen X students to write about issues raised in class. It works! Even shy students who do not talk in class participate online. If it can be done in college it can be done in high schools where the students are avid writers. We should worry less about our students’ grammar and spelling and more about capitalizing on their intense desire for written communication.


 Larry Rosen, Ph.D., is the author of Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation (December 2007) and TechnoStress: Coping With Technology @Work @Home @Play.  He can be reached at LROSEN@CSUDH.EDU or www.csudh.edu/psych/lrosen.htm.

Copyright, 2007, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $35 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.