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Teen Texting Soars; Will Social Skills Suffer?

For America's teens, cell phones have become a vital social tool and texting the preferred mode of communication, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

The report finds that 75 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 now have cell phones, up from 45 percent in 2004. And the number who say they text-message daily has shot up to 54 percent from 38 percent in just the past 18 months.

"There's now an expectation that teens will contact each other via text, and they expect a kind of constant, frequent response," says the Pew Center's Amanda Lenhart, one of the study's authors.

The survey, which was conducted with scholars from the University of Michigan, finds the typical American teen sends 50 texts a day, and a sizable number send double that or more. Some teens text their parents, though most youngsters say they prefer to speak with them by phone.

The Battle Over Cell Phones

This rapid rise in texting has led to confrontation as parents and schools try to control cell phone use. The report finds that parents are trying a variety of ways, from monitoring content to limiting the time of day or number of minutes children may talk or text. Many parents surveyed -- 62 percent -- say they've taken away their child's cell phone as punishment, though Lenhart says this can backfire: Parents often give children cell phones to keep track of their whereabouts, and don't like giving up that easy access.

At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland last week, students were tapping away on their phones before they even reached the exit doors after classes let out. Sierra Koenick, 17, said she and her friends talk about "everything."

"What's going on, or meet me here, or something," she said. Then she added, laughing, "Usually they're dumb texts, not even worth it."

Koenick says her grandfather once analyzed her monthly bill and estimated that she sends 300 texts a day.

Texting Away At School

The Pew report finds that most schools ban texting in class, but allow it in the halls or at lunch. A small minority ban phones outright, but the study finds that neither that, nor parental controls, seem to have much influence on the amount of texting teens do.

At schools where cell phones are forbidden, 58 percent of students with mobile phones say they've sent a text message during class.

Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles considered an outright ban last year, but did not implement it.

History teacher Nini Halkett laments the bad spelling and writing that seem to get worse each year as texting becomes more widespread. She also worries that so much immersion in technology is stinting her students' interpersonal skills. She finds they much prefer to communicate via computer, especially when working up the courage to ask for something like an extension on a deadline.

"When they do finally come in and talk to you, they just seem more shy," Halkett says. "A lot of them have a harder time looking you in the eye and communicating directly with you."

In Pew focus groups, many teens admitted to strategically using texting when they needed to communicate in an awkward situation, even -- or perhaps especially -- when the person they were texting was nearby. But researcher Lenhart says the art of verbal communication is not all lost, at least when it comes to parents.

"We heard from teens who said, 'When I want the yes, I'll go to the phone because my parents can hear my voice, and I can wheedle and charm them, and that's how I'm going to get what I want.' "

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