What's a Friend Worth? (Continued)

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Two of my favorite subjects pop up today, at a time when I wonder whether my periodic rants about the failings of social networking technology are getting stale and overworked. But when two separate articles show up simultaneously with high visibility in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, I sense this subject is far from ready to be retired.

The themes of the two articles looked dissimilar at first glance, but both touched on a subject that has concerned me and about which I have written on numerous occasions. Is the huge traffic in text messaging among so-called friends diminishing the meaning of friendship for young users and about the nature of relationship in general. The Globe article noted that people failed to respond to face-to-face encounters with acquaintances, either because they were enchanted by the cellphone or iPod they carried, or, more interesting to me, because they used the device as an excuse for not acknowledging the person passing by. Some even employed fauxting, a new term for faking attention to avoid contact. The article, written by a college senior, mourns the loss of relationship expressed in this behavior:

But the tragic, isolating thing is that we reach for our devices because we don’t want to seem lonely — which is causing us to avoid our peers and actually be lonely.

She echoes the finding of a couple of recent research studies on the use of iPods, cellphones, and other screen-based devices by young people ranging across the two studies from 2 to 17. The data showed a correlation between hours in engaged with the devices and claims of sadness and boredom, conditions not far from loneliness. You can see more of the data from these reports in two of my past blogs. New data reported in the Times article from the Pew Research Center are shocking to my much older eyes.

  • 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.
  • 15% of teens who are texters send more than 200 texts a day, or more than 6,000 texts a month.
  • Boys typically send and receive 30 texts a day; girls typically send and receive 80 messages per day.
  • Teen texters ages 12-13 typically send and receive 20 texts a day.
  • 14-17 year-old texters typically send and receive 60 text messages a day.
  • Older girls who text are the most active, with 14-17 year-old girls typically sending 100 or more messages a day or more than 3,000 texts a month.
  • However, while many teens are avid texters, a substantial minority are not. One-fifth of teen texters (22%) send and receive just one to 10 texts a day or 30 to 300 texts a month.

The earlier Kaiser report included data about the time spent by teenagers connected to their devices, and. unless you are the parents of a teenager, I imagine you will find these data hard to believe.

The number of hours per day are nearly the same as what goes for a day at the office, about 7 1/2 hours every day. Texting is in addition and adds another hour and a half per day.

Teachers and school administrators are taking a beating these days, but I wonder how much of the problems with our schools comes from inattention fostered by these devices.

It doesn’t take a sociologist or psychologist or survey researcher to see that something is very wrong with the almost straight upward trend in texting. I discovered it in conversations with teenagers about friendship and when I was writing about a Burger King promotion last year. I find it very difficult to understand why Burger King did this, but they offered a voucher for a free hamburger to anyone who would “sacrifice” 10 people from their Facebook list of friends. In a sense Burger King created a market for friends using hamburgers as the currency, thus enabling even an undergraduate economics student to calculate what a friend is worth. If you can’t do the math, it’s a tenth of a hamburger, about 37 cents at that time. Defriend or unfriend sounds a little less ominous than sacrifice. As an aside the Oxford Dictionary word of the year for 2009 was “unfriend.”

Even my youngest grandchild, now about six and a half, is an inveterate user of an iTouch or one of the several iPhones in the family whenever one lies idle. He has no friends to text with yet. I can easily imagine how easy and natural it will be for him to slide into communicating via the device without ever learning about the uniqueness of the spoken word and the meaningfulness of the context of a real conversation. Tis pity…

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