Our kids, and ourselves, are sending an awful lot of texts these days (see piece in today’s New York Times: Texting May Be Taking a Toll ).
Parents, teachers and experts are concerned about the effect this may be having, or will later have, on our children. Kids want to fit in and be part of the group, and in a way texting is a great leveler because the kid texting her only friend a hundred times looks a lot like the kid texting her hundred friends one time each—they are both hunched over a little device, squinting (sorry, that would me) and working their thumbs like monkeys hoping to earn bananas.
Beyond issues of separating and attaching, which texting perfectly taps into as kids attach to friends and distance from us parents as part of normal growing up, I suspect that another reason that texting may be so rampant is that it operates on the principles of “intermittent reinforcement.”
Reinforcement is another word for what happens to us after we “do” something. While punishment inhibits behavior (imagine if your iPhone shocked you every time you used a certain key, you’d soon learn some way around that key and not use it), positive reinforcement encourages behavior (press a bar and the rat gets a treat).
Now the MOST powerful sort of reinforcement for teaching behavior is when we get rewarded intermittently, because it makes us try harder and hang in there through repeated attempts. A great example of intermittent reinforcement is a slot machine, where the few random times we get a payoff (with literal bells and whistles) we are so jazzed that we keep going for that experience, all the while knowing that it’s costing us more than it’s giving us.
I think you can see where I’m going with this, for in addition to our needs for belonging and communicating, we are all being hooked into our devices by their uncanny ability to intermittently reinforce us. We send a message and we may get an instant response, but it may take two minutes, or it may take two hours—we’re never completely sure. And then when we do get a response, we are affirmed that our message had an impact. The subtle underlying message, below all the content of our texts, is that we do actually exist (something never to be underestimated when understanding human consciousness). This may be part of why kids are so vulnerable to texts in the middle of class, and in the middle of the night; in the fragility of their transformation from children to adults, they don’t know who they are, and sometimes they’re not even sure that they are.
Kids text therefore they are…
Unlimited anything creates anxiety. Texting may be “unlimited,” but we humans are not; we are limited by time, thumb-speed, capacity to receive (texts at least, hopefully not love).
We turn our cell phones off at yoga, and at the movies (or we should, anyway); aren’t our kids equally important? Perhaps we might all turn off devices at family dinner. Perhaps kids need to know that “lights out” means ALL blinking, buzzing, ringing things must go dark and quiet.
The mind needs time of stillness so we can listen to our deeper selves, find our true center and the confidence that comes from following it.
Perhaps we must set the example, and compassionately understand how we too fill our time, and avoid our fear and emptiness by chronic busyness (and too much blackberry business).
An anthropological take on texting could be that some day we will develop smaller and more dexterous thumbs, but I doubt it. More likely to me is that some day we will realize that we’ve been texting all along, since antiquity, way before iPhones; we’ve been “texting” at the more mysterious level of our heart-minds and our connection to those we love. Whether we call, email, text or simply send love with our minds, texting makes the truth of our connectedness concrete and “real.” And maybe, in the sweep of human development, texting is but an interim step toward calming down and realizing that we’re all connected anyway, and we all love each other, so we don’t need to lose the forest for the trees by compulsively repeating, “Hello? Are you there? What are you doing?”
Perhaps the first, and the last, text is Om (or Amen, or I love you). So let’s not take away our kids’ texting (but perhaps add in some loving limits) as this is the world in which we live right now. But let’s keep receiving their texts, letting them run away from us and run back to us, and lets keep telling, texting and vibing to all our kids that we care, and that we love them.