Texting teens on their terms
Advice for leaders on communicating with their youth
A Californian father was left speechless when he discovered his teenage daughter had sent an astonishing 14,528 text messages in one month.
Greg Hardesty thought there was a mistake with his 13-year-old daughter Reina's online phone bill when it stretched for 440 pages.
"First, I laughed: I thought, 'That's insane, that's impossible'," the New York Post reported the 45-year-old father as saying. "And I immediately whipped out the calculator to see if it was humanly possible."
Reina's freakish month of texting equates to over 480 messages sent a day — or around one every two minutes for every waking hour. Thankfully for Mr Hardesty's hip pocket, he had signed his daughter to an unlimited texting plan for $30 (A$42) a month — otherwise he figures AT&T would have slugged him with a $2,905.60 (A$4,113.13) bill.
"A lot of my friends have unlimited texting — I just text them pretty much all the time," Reina explained to her parents.
She said her texting had skyrocketed because she was bored on winter break and admitted to sending a bunch of messages to brag about her enormous effort.
The student has since been banned from sending SMS after dinner.
It's astonishing isn't it?
Yet it leaves me wondering, if there was an unlimited texting plan like this in Australia, perhaps some of the high schoolers I know wouldn't find it too hard to send an SMS every two minutes to someone they know.
Why are mobile phones so important to teenagers?
A series of recent reports by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) investigating the different ways today's Australian youth consume media may shed some light on this question.
The study found that 8-11 year olds (i.e. upper primary age) are most likely to communicate using a fixed landline phone than any other method and the typical 8-11 year old uses their mobile for an average of 3 minutes per day. Parents and guardians of upper primary age children may breathe a sigh of relief as their children are not likely to rack up a huge mobile phone bill any time soon.
Once a young person hits high school though, it's a different story. Compared to primary-aged children, 12-14 year olds much prefer to communicate via SMS, closely followed by making phone calls on a mobile and Instant Messaging (average usage was 19 minutes per day).
In the final school years, 15-17 year olds showed a very strong preference for using SMS to communicate with others, followed by mobile voice calls. Average usage more than doubles to 43 minutes per day compared to 12-14 year olds. Not surprisingly, fixed landline was the least preferred communication method for 15-17 year olds.
Why this marked increase in mobile usage from primary to high school?
On one level, it's simply access. Only 18% of 8-11 year olds owned a mobile phone, compared to 75% of 12-14 year olds and 90% of 15-17 year olds. Since teenagers are more likely to be out and about during the high school years, it's fair enough that their parents give them a means to be easily contactable at any point in time (or so they hope).
At a deeper level, it's not simply access. Why, for example, do we see gender differences in mobile usage? On average, girls spend 23 minutes a day using a mobile phone compared to 13 minutes a day for boys. What is it about young girls that makes texting, calling and taking photos so appealing to them? Are there deeper needs feeding the dependence of most teenagers on that little pocket-sized device?
Below is a graph showing the most common mobile-related activities amongst 8-17 year olds.
Analysing the data:
We can see that the top three activities (texting, calling and taking photos) have one thing in common: they are highly social. Girls and older kids also have one thing in common: they are relational. This may be why girls and older teenagers in general are drawn towards technologies that empower them to enrich relationships with their friends. Add to this the functionality of a music player, still and video camera, games console and it's easy to see why most teenagers squeal if deprived of their phone for more than a day.
It's important to note that the way the average youth leader uses their mobile is probably quite different from the youth they lead. Most adults use their mobiles for activities like emailing, surfing websites, watching TV shows/ clips, videos, etc. Why, however, do these activities come out bottom of the list for a young person?
It may be because these activities consume heavy amounts of data and mobile data is still quite expensive in Australia. It will be interesting to see whether, as data costs come down over the next few years, the peer-oriented activities (such as emailing, video calls and recording video footage) will become more popular amongst teenagers.
So what does this mean for those of us who have the privilege of discipling high school aged youth?
Do we cut off the most effective ties with them because mobile phone contact is discouraged by most denominational safe ministry guidelines? Do we throw up our hands in despair and bemoan the fact that our Bible study group missed a last-minute announcement because they failed to check their emails again? Do we turn a blind eye to their relational needs and hope they'll one day grow out of their dependence on the numeric key pad?
Try and put yourself in their shoes. The average teenager today has more media messages competing for their attention than the past three generations combined, so make it as easy for them as possible to respond to God's word. The fact that we don't use our mobile phones as much as teenagers do (or in the same way as they do) will challenge to us to see the world from their perspective.
If you want to significantly improve your chances of your next announcement getting through, then organise parental permission forms to contact your youth via sms and text your youth group. If you want to spur them on, send them encouraging SMS's telling them you're praying for them or pointing them to Christ amidst their struggles. When you're having good times with your Bible study group or youth group, take (appropriate) photos of your youth group or Bible study and post them somewhere safe and visible. These are just some examples of what we can do to show teenagers that we love and care about their souls in a way that resonates with them.