Family Matters

Is All That Texting Turning Young Adults Into Social Robots?

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I don’t text. There, I’ve said it. It takes too long for my fumbling thumbs to tap out a legible message. I’d rather call or email. Fortunately, I’m not 15 years younger, or I might have skewed the results of a survey from the Pew Internet Center that found that cell phone owners between the ages of 18 and 24 punch out 110 text messages a day, or a whopping 3,200 texts each month.

With all that texting, something’s got to give. Most likely, it’s social graces that are taking a hit. In June, I wrote about another techie time-suck, Facebook, and how one danger of fortifying your virtual social networks is that you let your real ones suffer.

For example, in that story, Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, said that she found in interviews with more than 300 children that kids prefer to apologize via text so they don’t have to experience the awkwardness of doing it in person. Begging for forgiveness can make even the boldest squirm, but that uneasy feeling is part of the process of feeling remorse, internalizing it and not repeating the same mistake. Relegating apologies to cell phone digital displays means that critical social skills like making eye contact, learning empathy and being a good listener are in danger of falling off society’s radar.

MORE: Is Technology Making Us Lonelier? A Q&A with Sherry Turkle

What’s noteworthy is that the group of 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed by Pew represents the first group of Americans to have been fully immersed in texting; they’re young-adult veterans of the digital age. Text messaging exploded during their lifetime, from 14 million monthly texts sent in 2000 to 188 billion monthly texts dispatched last year.

But while even I can acknowledge that texting can be useful — a quick reminder to pick up milk, a heads-up that you’re running late — it doesn’t seem like an appropriate technology to build relationships. “If they’re texting 100 times a day, that tells me they’re having conversations by text,” says Gwenn O’Keeffe, lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent clinical report on social media. “There’s really no other way to get up to that number.”

Can you really have a substantive conversation by pinging each other back and forth? You’re not reading someone’s emotional cues, not engaging in verbal give-and-take. “It becomes very robotic,” says O’Keeffe.

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It’s also dumbing down our attention spans. The essentially real-time nature of texting places an emphasis on instant gratification; young adults who are addicted to texting may struggle in the work world or in romance, where actions don’t create immediate reactions. “There is a real-life pace that goes on that is very different from a technological pace,” says O’Keeffe. With our growing dependency on texting, are we essentially creating a generation of people whose chief hallmark is impatience?

It sure seems that way. “The social dynamics of younger generations are changing,” notes O’Keeffe, “and it may not be for the best.”

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Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.