Should parents and teachers worry that teenagers’ texting or SMS messaging may lead to involvement in more antisocial activities? Yes, says a study led by Samuel Ehrenreich of the University of Texas at Dallas and published in Springer’s Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Text messaging between adolescents about antisocial topics and behavior does in fact predict more rule breaking and aggression.
The study provides a unique window into the social lives of adolescents, as it is the first to directly, naturally and unobtrusively observe text messaging between adolescents and their peers, and how it relates to later involvement in antisocial activities. 172 ninth-grade students from 47 American schools sent and received nearly 6,000,000 text messages during the yearlong study via Blackberry devices. The messages were archived, and four days of text messaging per participant were analyzed for discussions about the purchase or use of illegal substances, property crime, physical aggression and rule breaking. The youths, their parents and teachers rated their behavior before and after the ninth grade year.
Ehrenreich and his team found that participants did use text messages to coordinate antisocial activities, often occurring within the school. Texting with a peer about rule-breaking activities may not only provide easy access to information about illegal and antisocial behavior, but may also reinforce the notion that these activities are accepted within the peer group. Although the research team noted that text messaging also enhanced prosocial communication, they believe that the private nature of text messaging provided an ideal forum to plan and discuss antisocial activities beyond the realm of adult supervision.
The research team pointed out that youth who frequently engaged in antisocial SMS discussions may already be on a trajectory of increasing antisocial behavior. In line with the hypothesis suggesting that grouping deviant youth together increases their involvement in antisocial activities, communication about antisocial topics with deviant peers was found to be associated with increased rule-breaking and aggressive behavior.
Antisocial behavior typically includes activities that violate legal or societal rules, or which are harmful to the victims of these actions. It includes anything from hitting someone in anger to substance abuse, theft or secret retaliation against a peer. These actions are often covertly discussed and coordinated among friends, but are hidden from authority figures.
“Text messaging appeals to adolescents because they are able to discuss deviant topics in plain sight without adult supervision, and evade normal efforts to be monitored,” says Ehrenreich, who stresses the need for teachers and school administrators to limit students’ ability to text during the school day. “SMS communication is a meaningful avenue for deviant peer affiliation, and may warrant increased parental monitoring.”