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Texting teens need to know the limits of their digital social scene

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 06/06/2013

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Dear Patti,
My daughter, Abbie (15), is a really good girl and my husband and I think we’re pretty lucky to have her. Lately, though, she’s constantly on her phone texting. It doesn’t interfere with her homework or grades, nor does she text during church. While I don’t think she texts during the night, it’s the first and last thing she does every day. The worst thing is that we don’t seem to have very much quality time with her without her interrupting to check and send messages.

I’m happy she’s popular and has good friends and I really don’t want to blow this thing out of proportion. She always stops when we ask her to but before long she’s right back at it again. Whether she realizes it or not, her texting behavior is interfering with all of her familial relationships. Most recently, for instance, she drove her little brother to tears when she took a picture of him riding a pony and sent it to her friends. “I don’t want you to show your friends,” he said, “I just want to play with you alone.”

Another mother I talked to said that texting addictions are a serious problem. Is that true? I don’t want to alienate Abbie or take her phone away, nor do I want to punish her, but I do want to nip this behavior in the bud. What can I do?

— Ellie

Dear Ellie,
I understand your concern. Teen texting is clearly on the rise; with instant messaging, Twitter, and unlimited texting plans on many cell phones, it’s estimated that half of teens nationwide send 50-plus messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month. One in three sends twice that number, and 15 percent are up to as many as 6,000 texts per month. Texting has become tribal among youth and, to the extent this modern communication needs to be respected, cell phones have become crucial accessories in a teenager’s busy life.

Abbie is growing up and starting an individuation process that involves creating social skills and an alliance with peers. Teens who don’t learn these skills often end up homesick, depressed and unprepared for college. I suggest explaining to Abbie that you understand how necessary and healthy it is to bond with her friends but that there also has to be a healthy balance. Praise her for respecting her education and spirituality by curbing texting during those important times and then impress upon her that family must be a priority as well. Make it clear that while you don’t want to punish her, family relationships are of utmost value to you; firmly insist that she limit texting, especially during family time. Tell her you’re fine with her handling the situation herself, but if she would like you to support her by putting the phone away during those times, you’re willing to.

In its purest definition, addiction means that a person goes through physical withdrawals or great emotional difficulties when not taking a certain substance into his or her system or engaging in certain behaviors and activities such as gambling, sex or cutting that cause a serious problem in the quality of a person’s life.

Common signs that a teen may be addicted to texting include calluses on their thumbs or complaints about pain or cramps in their thumbs caused by severe overuse of texting; speaking in acronyms and commonly saying things like OMG and LOL; always keeping their phone within reach and constantly checking for messages; being oblivious to surroundings and ignoring everything else; experiencing sleep deprivation due to all-night texting; and becoming extremely anxious or combative if separated from one’s phone. Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and insecurity often accompany text addictions. There is also a condition called “textaphrenia” in which a person over-thinks a text message has come when it hasn’t. Anxieties about not receiving and texting messages are both related to feelings of being unloved and neglected. Coupled with this is “binge texting,” in which multiple texts are sent in order to attract responses and feel good about oneself.

At this point, it doesn’t sound like Abbie has a texting addiction, but rather an age-appropriate bad habit that requires guidance, boundaries and limits from you so as to not adversely affect important relationships or escalate into a more addictive behavior.

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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