Times have changed

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Six and a half years ago, in a Language Log post about the spread of texting in Japan, I commented on the lack of enthusiasm for texting in the U.S. ("Texting", 3/8/2004):

I don't think that I've even seen anyone texting in the U.S. Now that I think about it, this is a bit surprising, since there are plenty of foreign students at Penn who come from places (like China, Korea and much of Europe) where texting is common.

Times have certainly changed. Now pretty much everyone in the U.S. — certainly every high school and college student — seems to be texting all the time. And a recent Nielsen blog post cites some extraordinary statistics ("U.S. Teen Mobile Report", 10/14/2010):

For the 13-17 group, that's an average of 3,339 texts per month — 4,050 for females in this group.

3339/30 = 111.3 per day; 4030/30 = 135 per day. If you allow 8 hours for sleep, showers etc., that's 135/16 > 8 per available hour. No wonder you can pass dozens of people on the sidewalk, all with their heads in their cell phones.

Back in 2004, I echoed one common theory about why the Japanese and Europeans texted so much, and Americans hardly at all:

Does this mean that texting is only attractive if the telecom price structure discourages talking?

That theory certainly has been shown to be false. Teenagers that i know seem to have a positive aversion to talking on the telephone, even though their cell phone plans allow effectively unlimited talking minutes, and they certainly show no problem with talking in person.

[Update — Note that the cited Nielsen blog post says that these numbers are texts per month, although the graph leaves open the possibility that in fact it represents texts per quarter. It's also unclear whether this is just texts sent, or whether it also includes texts received. I'm assuming that it's texts sent, since those are ones that you (potentially) get charged for — but again, the graph is not clear on this point. And finally, it's not clear what the sample was and how it was selected.  So the numbers should be taken with a grain or two of salt, pending determination of the details.

But the basic point stands, I think — American teens have become enthusiastic texters, and are communicating by this method at a rate that has grown very rapidly over the past few years. ]

[Update #2 — Note that if the pattern of age-dependence in the cited graph (ignoring the change from 2009 to 2010) depicted data from a sociolinguistic survey, "apparent time" assumptions would lead us to conclude that the change under examination began when the cohort now aged 55-64 first came on the scene. In this case, kids now mostly start using cell phones in junior high school, so that would be about 50 years ago.

But in fact we know that the first SMS message was not even sent until 1992, merely 18 years ago, and that the growth of usage in the U.S. had hardly started in 2004, merely six years ago.

So (as is apparently also the case in language change) we can't reliably infer the time-pattern of a change from a snapshot of age-grading.]


  1. john riemann soong said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    you usually text if you're trying to arrange something with logistics or check in with somebody while on the move. discreetness either because the powers that be (like a school) will shut down more obvious forms of communication or you are trying to be unobtrusive to somebody.

    and you definitely text people if they are at a party or are going out.

    you leave the phone calls for the deep conversations with good friends, naturally.

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  3. Will said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

    As a 27-year old, I find those frequencies mind-boggling. I usually don't text at all on a given day, and if I do it's not usually more than once or twice. Maybe a dozen times if I'm going back-and-forth trying to work out some logistics. Overall average is probably close to 30 a month. Based on the graph above, that puts me squarely in the 65+ age group.

    And it's not like I have an aversion to texting or that I prefer speaking on the phone, it's just that I really don't understand what it is they are texting so much about.

  4. James said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

    I'm with you, Will. I'm 26, and I'm the only person I know who still pays for text messages individually.

    On many occasions I've received a message and started mentally composing a response, only to reconsider when I think about the half-dozen or so subsequent messages that'll be required to work out the logistics of whatever's going on. So I make a call instead, thinking "if they're busy, they just won't answer, and I'll leave a voicemail," but virtually every time my friend answers and seems to have plenty of time to talk.

  5. Uly said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:11 pm

    And Will, just think – for one of YOU there's another person in your age group who texts TWICE as much to make up the average!

  6. T. Munro said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    They are texting about anything and everything they do. Here's an example from two teens I know:

    How bout them Yankees baby, gotta love mariano!
    October 16 at 12:00am via Text Message · Comment · Like
    Shut your mouth.
    October 16 at 12:03am
    Love you too!
    October 16 at 12:05am
    October 16 at 12:07am
    That game was sick dude! That 5 run inning made me dance.
    October 16 at 12:07am
    Yea it was pretty sick i was at the football game though so i just barely saw the highlights.
    October 16 at 12:09am
    I started watching in the 5th inning
    October 16 at 12:10am
    I wish i coulda watched the whole thing
    October 16 at 12:12am
    Yeah me too, idk if im gunna watch tomorrow though
    October 16 at 12:13am
    Yea i don't think i will either.
    October 16 at 12:14am

  7. Bobbie said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

    A friend who is a college professor complained to me last week that no one in his class seems to be listening to his lectures any more! The students "are all texting and reading the responses! "

  8. Chris said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    I don't text nearly as much as the graph suggests I ought to, but I do have a fairly strong aversion to talking on the phone. I certainly have no trouble talking in person, but over the phone I find that it takes some effort to understand what the other person is saying. It's a bit like hearing something in a foreign language which I understand, but still take a second to process before it actually 'clicks'. I don't know what the explanation is (lack of visual data, worse sound quality over the phone?), or whether it's common enough to contribute to the popularity of texting, but I do know a few others roughly my age who have the same problem.

  9. Jason Cullen said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    I've been an ESL teacher for a decade, and I can say the first rule of class should be "speak only in English" or "respect your classmates" or "ask if you don't understand." Nope: the first rule taught on the first day of class is CELL PHONES OFF!!!! A colleague of mine even brought a broken cell phone and smashed it with a hammer to illustrate the point…

  10. Victor Mair said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

    Multilingual texting between a couple of my students:



    9:14 PM
    me: xianzai ni he fanxi zuo shenme? wo hen lonely zai fisher xuexi xuexi
    xiang kan nimen de 顔
    9:15 PM Kira: 我不跟他, 我也是作作业的
    9:16 PM 可是我们去玩儿
    ni keyi lai gen wo xuexi yi xia
    9:17 PM ranhou women keyi chuqu wanr, hao ba?
    9:19 PM me: haode. afterparty shenmeshihou? mingtian zaoshang women yao qu shangke, ni zhidaolema!?!?
    9:20 PM Kira: wo zhidao
    me: soshite francis wa doko!?
    Kira: danshi jintian xiawu wo shui ge wujiao! wo jiu keyi hen wan go to be
    9:21 PM fanxi gen pengyou he jiu
    me: 熱
    Kira: wo gang gang qu distrito gen wo de pengyou chi yi kou fan
    ni ne?

    me: na wo deng zai zher zuowan hw, ~12 chuqu kaihui
    Kira: na xing
    me: xing desu yoKira: dbq [Abbreviation for duibuqi]
    9:24 PM arrigato correct wo
    9:25 PM me: zhege 会話shi今世紀de
    9:26 PM Kira: too 真的!
    CIA should hire us
    9:28 PM me: hahahah ok gtg kan riwen shu atode gei ni text text! じゃね!
    also i am fwding this to mair sensei
    9:29 PM Kira: do it, bet it'll 让他很genki

  11. kenny said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

    don't generalize! I'ma 23 year old graduate student, and I have never sent a text message in my life. Yes, I'm very technologically literate, but I find texting to be intolerably impersonal, and I have disabled the sending or receiving of texts on my phone. And I've seen its detrimental effects on my students. They just can't pay attention.

  12. pAnita said,

    October 30, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

    Among other things, texting allows for the interlocutors to maintain a conversation that doesn't demand a contiguous stretch of time and attention (unlike a phone call), so a conversation can remain ‘open’ for hours even though the nett duration of the exchange may be short, and the participants may be involved in various other things during the conversation (which might otherwise be rude in a phone conversation). Sending a text message allows the addressee to respond on her own time instead of right away, which is usually expected in a phone conversation. The enforced brevity of the messages also makes it a good medium for short, perhaps trivial exchanges or purely social pleasantries, whereas one might feel awkward calling someone up just to say literally only “Hi, how are ya?” or the like. I'd say there's compelling functional differentiation between texting and calling; avid texters may not actually shun calling per se.

  13. GAC said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 12:53 am

    Texting is simply more convenient. I feel more comfortable sending a text and waiting for a response (or conversely, waiting until a better time to look at a text) than I do for voicemail. It's also useful if you are in an area where you don't need to be paying attention but you could disturb someone with a phone call. I don't text in class or at work, but it's ideal at the library or in a restaurant. It seems to be adding a new level of technological etiquette.

  14. C Thornett said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 1:23 am

    As a teacher in adult education (ESOL and adult literacy), I encourage my students to text or phone me directly when they are late or absent, since it can be difficult to get messages through. Text messages can be read quickly without interrupting the class. In a similar way, I can text students in groups if I need to notify them of something. Many of my students do not have e-mail addresses.

    I appreciate the feelings of the teacher who smashed an old phone, though. There always seem to be one or two students who give higher priority to their phones than to the class. Adults may genuinely need to remain in touch if, say, someone is ill at home, but otherwise it is impolite to the rest of the class as well as to the teacher. Texting is less disruptive, but still interferes with class activities. You can't role play with your neighbour and text at the same time.

    Texting seems to be the main form of written communication for some of my students, who become anxious whenever asked to write on paper.

  15. D.O. said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 3:29 am

    These numbers include incoming as well as outgoing texts (that is the texting sides are counted twice). Also, if we assume that most texting conversations are in rapid-fire exchanges of small messages, situation will not look as fantastic (but is it true?) as it seems at first glance. It would not be too hard for those who have the statistics to look into how those conversations are structured timewise.

  16. Leo said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 5:43 am

    It looks like the graph shows texts per quarter, not month. That would make it around 40 per day, not 111 or 135. Have I got this wrong?

    I'm 26, and the chart shows around 750 per quarter for my age group, i.e. eight per day – that's not so far-fetched if you ask me.

  17. Leo said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 5:44 am

    40 per day for the 13-17 age group, I mean.

  18. GeorgeW said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 7:03 am

    I am in the highest age group on the graph and text infrequently. However, I find it very useful in several situations. I text with my son (thirty something) during football games involving our favorite team (after scores, great plays etc.). I text with friends and family members when traveling or meeting up to coordinate times.

    These are situations in which the requirements of conversational protocols can be avoided. In most of these, if texting weren't available, I probably would not have communicated.

  19. Frans said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    Calling is intrusive. Texting, e-mailing, tweeting, etc. are not. Unless it's urgent I wouldn't typically call, but of course something may become more urgent if a reply hasn't been received within a period of a few hours to a few days (depending on what it is).

    Note that I neither text nor call very often, at least utilizing a (cell)phone. If you include things like Skype then there's quite a bit more.

  20. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    There's a strong "kids these days are crazy/going to hell" tone to these discussions that frustrates me. I'm 41 and rarely text, but I've often had IM conversations which have a similar temporal structure.

    I thknk these immense counts of text messages are deeply misleading and are only considered important because of an accident of billing practices, and a misunderstanding of what the kids are doing.

    Notice that nobody ever counts the total number of back-and-forth messages in an IM conversation, or the total number of utterances in a telephone conversation–or, for that matter, total sentences in an email or written letter–as the obvious measurement to compare to these texts. But with texts, because once upon a time they were always billed at ten cents a pop (and unwary parents still get socked with immense bills because they haven't switched to flat plans), we still take the individual message as the natural chunk and assume that kids are sending thousands of vapid, context-free squibs–something alien to our experience–instead of having extended conversations, which is what they are doing.

  21. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    I also greatly prefer asynchronous text communication, like email or IM, to phone calls for many purposes. A phone call demands your complete attention to a degree that even face-to-face speech does not; this is why cell calls while driving are so dangerous. With text, your attention is necessary while typing (which makes texting while driving even more dangerous), but you can choose the time; the sender isn't monopolizing it.

  22. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    I'm 41 and rarely text

    Sorry, that should be 42. Old enough to start forgetting.

  23. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    …Now, personally, email feels more natural to me than texting because I prefer media in which I can construct long-form paragraphs at my leisure. (But that makes telephone calls even more frustrating for anything that requires complicated explanations.)

    In terms of hotness/immediacy, electronic text media fill a middle ground between telephone calls and written mail that has been missing from general experience since the decline of the telegraph.

  24. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    My own experience of college freshmen (I teach freshman comp) and my own teenage daughter suggests that texting (and for that matter Facebook and Twitter) are extensions of the kind of telephone life that was extended by cell phones.

    I consider myself very technologically savvy. I think K&R is a good read for the loo. I can write computer programs with a GUI interface, and regularly write dynamic web applications with JavaScript front-end and PHP back-end. I have 5000+ posts on a web-related bulletin board, most of which consist me teaching other people how to write HTML and programming code. I compose digital music and have built several sets of pretty good stereo speakers.

    But I dislike telephones. Ergo, I dislike cellphones. I also do not like texting or Facebook and its ilk. Email is my preferred mode of communication.

    Part of this is idiosyncratically me. And though I hesitate to say that there is a technology gap out there, I believe there is some sort of gap, and that it is about social structures, and the way they interact with, or are themselves structured by, technology.

    I suppose some ethnologist out there is writing about this more gracefully and less anecdotally than I am, even if it's to demonstrate quite the opposite.

  25. Dunx said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    "I'm assuming that it's texts sent, since those are ones that you (potentially) get charged for"

    Unfortunately, US carriers charge for text messages received as well.

  26. Nijma said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    the first rule taught on the first day of class is CELL PHONES OFF!!!!
    That is our official policy too, but you can't enforce it. Students have to be able to contact their children's babysitters at home or receive messages from work. After pointing out these IMO legitimate needs for a phone in the classroom, I ask students to step outside the classroom door if they need to use the phone, and they do. If they don't move fast enough, I cough and clear my throat meaningfully. We have other rules too, or at least we used to, but that's the only one I can ever remember.

  27. D. Sky Onosson said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    What Frans said…

    I'm 38 and I prefer texting (when possible) over most other forms of techno-communiciation with the exception of perhaps email, for the explicit reason that it is far less intrusive on the recipient. I hate retrieving voicemail and I don't like to put others in the position where they must access their voicemail system – and phone calls require a whole other level of engagement.

  28. Rosie Redfield said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    I thought these numbers (e.g. 4050 texts/month) must be wrong when I saw them last week, because although some teenagers no doubt send more than 100 texts per day, I very much doubt that most teenagers do.

    Maybe Leo's found the problem. Could the Neilsen post writer have made an error – these are not texts/month but texts per quarter?

  29. Ken Brown said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    I'm 53 and I text about 10 or 20 times a week. But my age cohort seems to be moving on from SMS to Twitter and Facebook. Smartphones & 3G mean we don't need to text any more :-)

  30. Amy said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    Not having to respond spontaneously means you are relatively free from possible anxiety that can arise during conversation act. Besides, you can employ plenty of strategies such as delaying responses, making alibi, etc. which are hard to do when talking on the phone directly.

  31. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

    I tried texting but I was all thumbs.

  32. Plane said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    According to the article, this is based on phone bills. "Text usage", as I understand it, generally includes messages both sent and received. So, naively, you could divide all of this by two to avoid double-counting each message. That doesn't really work though. Due to bridging services (email-to-SMS, for example), some texts are only counted once; others are counted many times due to SMS broadcasting services like Twitter.

    I have no way of accounting for these accurately, so I won't try. But I don't think this gives us a clear picture of how many texts people are sending per month.

    (Despite this quibbling, the article sounds pretty accurate to me. I certainly know teenagers who send thousands of texts per month.)

  33. fog said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

    I bet I read a very similar story back in 2004. I was in the 13-17 age bracket then and I predicted that it would never catch on here in the US. At the time, the idea of spending money for every text sent was the main reason I thought it sounded absurd. I certainly guessed wrong on that one! That may have been my first time underestimating technology.
    I am now in the 18-24 group, and I someone out there is definitely making up for my lack of texting. I send a couple of texts a week to family members who don't live nearby, coworkers (about working schedules), and people I'm meeting for meals. Texting is very convenient for these sorts of things, but I don't think I would enjoy using it for chatting.

  34. Will said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    If you assume these are per quarter (not month), and also assume double-counting of texts, then for the 13-17 group that comes out to 3339 / 30 / 3 / 2 = 18.6 texts per day. That sounds much more reasonable to me than 111.3 per day.

  35. Craig said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

    A friend of mine who's a high school teacher installed a cell phone jammer in a locked drawer because so many of his kids were constantly texting in class.

  36. Cecilia said,

    October 31, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

    @Chris, I loathe talking on the phone, too. Signal quality is terrible on cell phones, and even when I'm on a land line, the other person probably isn't. I miss the days when phone companies bragged that you could hear a pin drop over their connections. :( (I'm 45 & rarely text.)

  37. Diane said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 12:18 am


    It definitely is more difficult to understand people on the phone. I don't notice the problem in English, my native language, but when I was living in a non-English speaking country, I found myself getting up and walking a good half-hour or more to talk to someone face-to-face rather than deal with the difficulty of communicating over the phone.

  38. The Ridger said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    All you kids text because your music (which is just noise!) has made you deaf!

    More seriously, texting is not only less intrusive, but – my very first thought when I see a cartoon about two teens in the back seat of a car texting each other and mom who's driving being all incredulous – it prevents others (like mom) from hearing what you're saying. Meaning, it's more private than a phone call. People making cell calls in public are despised – now we're going to hate the texters, too?

  39. David J. Littleboy said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    "It definitely is more difficult to understand people on the phone."

    It's very easy to understand people on the phone: it's the cell phone's lousy audio quality that makes conversation almost impossible. When my customers call me on their cells I tell them to call me when they get back to the office.

    For the record: I'm 58 and never text. But then I don't own a cell phone…

  40. Mary Kuhner said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    I'm 47 and I neither text nor use cell phones except in emergencies. My non-texting probably has to do with hatred of my cell phone, though. I'd guess that I'd find it to be a kind of email, and I took to email like a duck to water as soon as I encountered it. I really dislike phone calls: they are intrusive, there's no record of them, there's no time to refine your message before sending it.

    It does seem more and more necessary to discourage students from splitting their attention in class. Regrettably, I find it's also more and more difficult for me when I attend workshops and lectures. I used to sit in lectures and write stories, with some bad results on my attention to the lecture; now I have a laptop to write on, and that seems to be worse. Perhaps it's because the pad of paper just sat there when not in use, whereas my laptop may do something on its own.

  41. Leo said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    I'm selfishly glad to see that there are so many others who don't like talking on the phone either. I always felt like it was a slightly shameful personal quirk.

  42. Aaron Davies said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    i'm 30 and text only very occasionally (<10/month), mostly for logistics. (it's very handy for "are you here yet?" "half a block away" type conversations, particularly when one party may be on the subway and out of reception when the conversation starts.) i can certainly see the benefit to a "semi-synchronous" communications channel intermediate between email and voice.

    i wonder if there's been any study of text use among those who do and don't own a phone capable of easily sending real email? one of the main reasons i don't text much is that it's considerably more redundant on an iPhone than it is on old-style "feature phones" where email was incredibly painful, if available at all.

  43. John Cowan said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 1:16 am

    I don't send texts, but I receive one per appointment from Google Calendar, which I find very handy. To be sure, those texts are fully spelled out, because that's the way I enter things in my calendar.

  44. Stephen Jones said,

    November 4, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    For the record of least important text message, one received in England some years back from my best friend in Sri Lanka.
    —Just going to toilet—–.

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