How Texting and IMing Helps Introverted Teens

Digital communication may seem impersonal, but that distance may also provide some benefits, especially for troubled teens

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There is plenty of grumbling about how social media — texting in particular — may be harming children’s social and intellectual development. But a new study suggests that constant IM’ing and texting among teens may also provide benefits, particularly for those who are introverted.

Israeli researchers studied instant messages exchanged by 231 teens, aged 14 to 18. All of the participants were “regular” or “extensive” IM’ers.  In the U.S., two thirds of teens use instant messaging services regularly, with a full third messaging at least once every day.

The researchers analyzed 150 conversations in the study, and reported the results in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. In 100 of these chats, the study participant began IM’ing while in a negative emotional state such as sadness, distress or anger. The rest were conversations begun when the participant was feeling good or neutral. After the chat, participants reported about a 20% reduction in their distress— not enough to completely eliminate it, but enough to leave them feeling better than they had before reaching out.

“Our findings suggest that IM’ing between distressed adolescents and their peers may provide emotional relief and consequently contribute to [their] well-being,” the authors write, noting that prior research has shown that people assigned to talk to a stranger either in real life or online improved their mood in both settings, but even more with IM. And people who talk with their real-life friends online also report feeling closer to them than those who just communicate face-to-face, implying a strengthening of their bond.

(MORE: Does the Internet Really Make Everyone Crazy?)

Why would digital communication trump human contact? The reasons are complex, but may have something to do with the fact that users can control expression of sadness and other emotions via IM without revealing emotional elements like tears that some may perceive as embarrassing or sources of discomfort. Studies also show that the anonymity of writing on a device blankets the users in a sense of safety that may prompt people to feel more comfortable in sharing and discussing their deepest and most authentic feelings. Prior research has shown that expressive writing itself can “vent” emotions and provide a sense of relief— and doing so knowing that your words are reaching a sympathetic friend may provide even more comfort and potentially be therapeutic.

Researchers also found that introverted participants reported more relief from IM conversations when they were distressed than extraverts did. As Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, wrote recently for TIME:

Introverts are often brimming with thoughts and care deeply for their friends, family and colleagues. But even the most socially skilled introverts (of whom there are many) sometimes long for a free pass from socializing en masse or talking on the phone. This is what the Internet offers: the chance to connect — but in measured doses and from behind a screen…

[W]hen you’re blogging or tweeting, you don’t have to wade through small talk before you get to main point. You have time to think before you speak. You can connect, one mind with another, freed from the distractions of social cues and pleasantries — just the way readers and writers have done for centuries.

(MORE: Why Gadgets Are Great for Introverts)

For teens who are just learning to negotiate a changing social world and establish new relationships, IMing may provide just the outlet they need for sharing feelings and connecting with peers without the embarrassment of exposed emotions. For parents, however, it’s worth remembering that the comfort comes with dangers as well, since online predators are eager to exploit this openness and prey on young texters’ vulnerability. Monitoring the friends and contacts the youngest teens are connecting with online can minimize the threat; as with any service, it’s a matter of balancing the benefits with the risks.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

9 comments
Paul Hanson
Paul Hanson

I don't know if I'm troubled or not, but for me it's always been much easier to communicate via text in place of phones or voices. I've even made many friendships on the internet because I'm willing to be more open via texting than simple verbal communication. I don't have to be cautious or unsure about someone's Skype name or forum avatar.

That's not to say that I shy from conversation or anything... at least when it's related to family or close friends. Being open to strangers feels unnatural to me, hence why I'm obviously an introvert. We all have our ways on sharing thoughts and ideas, and there's nothing wrong with that. Believe it or not, technology can open doors to people.

|ıʇɐʍs|
|ıʇɐʍs|

So being introverted means that you are "troubled" now??

Stoyan Kostadinov
Stoyan Kostadinov

I see it on myself ! I try to use less instant messaging for personal needs and only use corporate instant messenger at work to get my work done quickly without unnecessary phone calls and visits.

Nine Naturals Mom
Nine Naturals Mom

With every teenager nowadays hooked to their smart phones, tablets and other gadgets that allow them to go online wherever, whenever, I guess parents are finding it harder to monitor their kids social activities. True that this may help introverted teen become more open to others and have a social life. But you can't really see the true feelings and sincerity of a person with just messages and emoticons, right? Actual face-to-face communication and socialization is still best for building good, trusting friendships.

Sara Rose
Sara Rose

Unfortunately, "introverted" teens are the very ones most likely to be harassed by anonymous bullies. I recall a case a couple of years ago where a shy high-schooler was texted into hanging herself by vicious classmates. There's no substitute for face-to-face socialization, as painful as it may for some adolescents. Then the teen knows who she/he is dealing with--and has the aid of visual clues, which can tip off whether the other person is sincere.

thelithiumcat
thelithiumcat

It depends on how safe the person feels in showing their emotions to other people in person. For some people (particularly introverts) it requires a /lot/ of trust to let someone see them in that state of emotional vulnerability. Introverts take a lot of care in deciding what they show to others. They are very controlled and private in that regard. Communicating in text allows the person to work through the emotions without necessarily having to sacrifice the security found in keeping such information quiet and unassociated with their person.

Additionally, for introverts in particular, connecting purely mind-to-mind is much more important. Text allows them to get straight to the point and deal with the topic directly rather than dealing with social rules, prejudices and fascades which inevitably come with face-to-face interaction. By removing those social barriers, communication via text actually can actually for a much deeper and more genuine connection. To quote Wilde, 'Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.'