Census Bureau: Texting Grows Among Americans

Some recent numbers released by the Census Bureau show that Americans sent more than twice as many texts in December 2008 than they did in December 2007. Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist for the Pew Internet and American Life Project, talks to Renee Montagne about the significance of the numbers.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In one month in 2007, Americans sent just under 50 billion text messages. Just a year later in 2008, they sent more than twice that many, 110 billion. That's according to numbers compiled by a trade group, the Wireless Association. And this year the number of text messages continues to skyrocket. One person who's been following this is Amanda Lenhart. She's a researcher with the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project and joined us to talk about it.

Good morning.

Ms. AMANDA LENHART (Researcher, Pew Internet and American Life Project): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So let me guess. Here in the United States, is it teenagers driving all that text traffic?

MS. LENHART: It is teenagers driving the traffic. Teenagers send an enormous number of text messages on a daily basis, let alone a monthly or yearly basis.

MONTAGNE: So including everyone who's using text messages, is it in a sense a new way for people to communicate? And I'm wondering what the charm is.

MS. LENHART: Well, I think there's a lot of different reasons why people, and teens in particular, like text messaging. Partly because it's private. It's this opportunity to send a message where you won't be overheard.

But teens also told us, in some focus groups that we've conducted, that they really love the efficiency of text messaging. I don't have to get on the phone. I don't have to have all these niceties and these - talk about the weather. I just have to tell you come and pick me up in front of the gym at 5 PM.

So they really like that efficiency of the text message, as well as the fact that you don't have to reach the person to get the information to them. It's not a phone call where the person has to be on the other end.

MONTAGNE: Well, does that mean, if you reverse it, that all this texting is at the expense of making phone calls?

MS. LENHART: Well, you know, I think what we've seen is that, at least with teens, phone calling is still quite important. But text messaging does appear to be a more favored mode of communication for the majority of adolescents. With adults, what the Census Bureau findings, and the - I believe it's the Wireless Association's data - suggests that they're still making phone calls. But those phone calls might be a little bit shorter.

MONTAGNE: You know, there's an article on this in the L.A. Times, and a professor of communications studies was cited, and he said that all this texting could lead to, as he put it, a withering of interpersonal skills. Do you think that's a legitimate concern?

MS. LENHART: I think it's important to contextualize texting in the sort vast range of communication that we've engaged in over time. So, you know, we used to send letters. And then we sent emails. And now we send text messages.

In between all those communications we're still talking with each other face-to-face, we're still talking on the telephone. I think we've had a long and rich history of text-based communication. I'm not too worried that it's going to be withering our abilities to communicate.

MONTAGNE: Well, when you say a long history of using text to communicate, the difference, though, is with text message is it's very, very short. That could be considered a skill. I mean, there's a lot of witty twitters out there. But it doesn't seem quite in line with, you know, writing long letters to people.

MS. LENHART: That is very true. One thing that is important to note, though, is that the majority of adolescents, at least, have an unlimited text messaging plan. Even though you have this character limit, you can write a series of messages that conveys what you want. That said, it certainly is limiting, and that does change, I think, the way they talk and present themselves. But the English language is a fluid thing. We're changing it, and perhaps this will change English, but we'll continue speaking and interacting.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

MS. LENHART: Oh, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Amanda Lenhart is a senior research specialist at the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

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