As young people turn increasingly to texting and instant messaging to communicate with their friends, psychologists worry that they are missing out on the intimacy and depth of friendship that face-to-face communication allows, reports the New York Times.

In a recent post I noted research amongst college students in which a number of them admitted to being “addicted” to social media, particularly texting on the cellphone.

A new Pew study shows that there has been an explosion in texting recently:

Daily text messaging among American teens has shot up in the past 18 months, from 38% of teens texting friends daily in February of 2008 to 54% of teens texting daily in September 2009. And it’s not just frequency – teens are sending enormous quantities of text messages a day. Half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month, and one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month. Older teen girls ages 14-17 lead the charge on text messaging, averaging 100 messages a day for the entire cohort. The youngest teen boys are the most resistant to texting – averaging 20 messages per day.

There is more communication than ever, apparently, but what is the quality of friendships maintained in this way? Some experts find evidence that teens are becoming less interested in face-to-face communication with their friends. Even the long telephone conversations that had teens monopolising the home phone are disappearing. “Facebook,” says one psychologist, “is not a conversation.”

One of the concerns is that, unlike their parents — many of whom recall having intense childhood relationships with a bosom buddy with whom they would spend all their time and tell all their secrets — today’s youths may be missing out on experiences that help them develop empathy, understand emotional nuances and read social cues like facial expressions and body language. With children’s technical obsessions starting at ever-younger ages — even kindergartners will play side by side on laptops during play dates — their brains may eventually be rewired and those skills will fade further, some researchers believe.

There are parents, like one in the Times story, who think the technology is bringing children closer together. Some researchers believe that the impersonal nature of texting and online communication may make it easier for shy kids to connect with others. A parent quoted by the Times agrees.

OK. But face-to-face relationships must be the goal that technology serves, and parents should be raising their kids to put those first: relationships within the family, with friends, with the wider community. And relationships include more than communication; they include common activities and helping others.

So researchers need to find out not only whether children’s friendships are becoming impoverished through media use, but whether the kids are talking to their parents and siblings at home; whether they do anything around the house; what cultural sporting and service activities they squeeze into their intensely networked lives. Things like that — don’t you think?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet