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TTYL, Mom and Dad
Do Cell Phones Help or Hinder Communication?
An article from David R. Smith at

At a recent parent’s seminar, a frustrated grandmother complained that she couldn’t spend quality time with her grandchildren because they were always on their cell phones. She asked for my advice, and when I gave it to her, she was more than a little surprised by what she heard.

The Big Question
An important question on the minds of many parents these days is, “How can I improve my communication with my children?” It can be frustrating trying to carry on conversations with teenagers who consider one syllable grunts an acceptable answer to most questions, or have their faces glued to some sort of screen at the same time, be it a laptop, a 17” flat screen, or a cell phone. If parents aren’t careful, their requests for dialogue will leave teenagers saying, “TTYL, Mom and Dad” (talk to you later, Mom and Dad).

Today’s parents are raising teenagers in an atmosphere that is too often turbulent. The conversations are difficult enough in and of themselves, but frequently, there is the added strain of poor communication that hinders the dialogue from ever starting. If only parents had a “secret weapon” that would enable them to open up lines of communication with their teens.

They might.

It’s called a cell phone.

Speaking My Language
You’re probably thinking, “But their cell phone is what’s keeping them from talking to me!” Well, maybe we can learn a lesson from several million Sprint customers who’ve mastered the art of transforming their kids’ cell phones from a hindrance-to-communication into a help.

Sprint, one of the country’s largest cellular providers, just released a report that showed a significant increase in the number of text messages sent to children by parents. In 2006, only 13% of adults aged 50-64 were using text messages. Currently, 20% of the same crowd is using text messaging (with 76% of them claiming to use it to connect with their kids). More parents have jumped on the text message band wagon, but why?

Simple. Text messages get answers…and quick! The children of these Sprint customers – like most teens – were found to be four times more likely “to respond to a text message within minutes” than to a voicemail, with 91% of them saying they would respond to a text message within an hour.

Even Barack Obama’s campaign gurus recognize the affinity young people have with their cell phones. He’s made it no secret that his campaign strategy, in part, relies on text message communication with supporters, especially the younger ones. Earlier in his campaign, he even promised to reveal his running mate via text message.

Ultimately, the better we understand how kids use their cell phones, the greater chance we have of using them to foster communication.

Can’t Live Without It
In an article from the Center on Media and Child Health, U.S. Cellular claims that 60% of teenagers own a cell phone and talk on them an average of one hour each day (approximately the same amount of time they spend doing home work). But don’t let all that chit-chat distract you from a very important reality. OTX and eCRUSH’s report found that text messaging was the feature ranked “most popular” by teenagers. Chatting and texting is how a majority of teenagers prefer to communicate with their friends, with 51% of the teens in the survey saying they “absolutely could not live without” their cell phones.

When the Pew Internet and American Life Project jumped in with a study in 2007, they discovered that 70% of cell phone-equipped teenagers talked with friends on them daily, and 60% of the same group said they sent text messages daily, as well. Amongst other things, their 2008 report looked at the impact these kinds of technology had on families.

25% of families thought that their use of cell phones and the internet actually brought them closer. Ironically, the report also found that these tech-heavy families shared fewer meals together and were less likely to be satisfied with family and leisure activities.

So, are cell phones and text messages the answer to all of our problems concerning broken communication between adults and teens?

No, but they’re a good start.

The Silver Bullet?
My suggestion to the disgruntled grandma was for her to use her cell phone to communicate with her grandchildren, specifically through a text message.

“But I don’t know how to send a text,” she said.

“Perfect! Go ask your grandchildren to help you learn how to send a text. Bam! You’ll instantly grab their attention, be in conversation with them, show them you’re interested in what they’re interested in, and learn something at the same time.”

Kids love to teach adults elements like this from their world.

But we can’t stop at texting. Remember, we’re not after new knowledge or phonetically-incorrect text messages; we’re after the most genuine communication we can get with our kids. There’s no silver bullet, but these kind of actions show teens that we’re willing to enter their world. And when we do, we can occasionally invite them into our world for those long, meaningful, one-on-one talks we so desperately want…and they so desperately need.

A Note of Caution
Lots of youth pastors try to capitalize on the use of cell phone communication, including text messaging. This kind of communication is unparalleled in efficacy with teens, but there are a few things to keep in mind as you text teenagers today.

  1. Be very, very, very careful. We’ve all heard the stories and read the headlines about adults who’ve had inappropriate contact with teenagers on a cell phone or internet site. One visit to the website BadBadTeacher will show you just how serious the issue has become. In fact, it’s such a problem that certain legislators are trying to ban text messaging between teachers and students. These educators forfeited everything because of their irresponsible actions. Poor decisions like these in youth ministry up the ante quite a bit because of the damage it does to Christ’s name. So never type anything that you would not be comfortable with your spouse or boss or the teenager’s parents seeing. The safest boundary for youth pastors is to restrict texts to information that pertains to the entire youth group (“free pizza tonight at youth,” or “worship has been moved to 6:30pm”).

  2. Stay fluent. Today’s teenagers are inventing a language to use when texting. If you’re not focused on being “bilingual,” the messages may seem like a foreign language or hieroglyphics. Familiarize yourself with the shorthand messages and abbreviations that make up so many text messages. Here’s one helpful site that will help you do just that.

  3. Be responsible. Most schools prohibit cell phone use during school hours. Make sure that you don’t become a stumbling block to your students by sending text messages during school hours that would tempt them to reply and get in trouble.

David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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